Growing to a new stage in Claremont

by John Pixley

Too bad The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee isn’t still playing. I would say run, don’t walk, to this Claremont High School theater production.

The musical, which played for 2 weekends last month, certainly should still be going on. When I saw it, I was simply astounded for the entire 2 hours. It was the best, or best done, show that I have seen in years. Of any show, including professionally done stuff in Los Angeles and Hollywood.

Not only that. I saw the play on the next to the last night, and I told my friend who was out from LA that he had to see it. My friend, who has seen and done lots of theater in LA and New York, saw the final performance and was floored. He said that the show was better than many professional shows he has seen and that “those kids should be getting paid to be on stage in West Hollywood.”

Indeed, it was the kids who made the show. I had seen the play before and thought it was okay and thought I wouldn’t see this production. But because it was at Sycamore School auditorium—an unusual venue and easily accessible in my wheelchair—I decided to go, and the acting was a revelation. It wasn’t just acting; these students had grown into and were living their characters.

Although the characters weren’t much more than caricatures, the students made them real and whole. All were excellent, but 2 of the cast members stood out. Emerson Dauwalder was hysterical as he totally tripped out playing Leaf Coneybear, the trippy, blissed-out home-schooled hippie kid. And the way Hunter Alkonis, as Mitch Mahoney, escorted the losing spelling bee contestants as part of his community service sentence conveyed worlds of emotions in a look or a touch was breathtaking. Both also, in brief scenes, portrayed a pair of gay dads with considerable sensitivity.

No doubt the production taking place in a funky old school auditorium, much like the musical’s setting, contributed to its perfect-storm authenticity. There was also the work of the director and choreographer DJ Gray, returning to her alma maters (CHS and Sycamore) after doing much professional theater work, including on Spelling Bee. And Krista Carson Elhai, who has done remarkable work as the high school theater director, clearly had a hand in the doings as producer.

While this production was done at Sycamore School for practical reasons—the theater at the high school was being renovated and was no doubt still torn up—the unique venue not only made the show even better. In so doing, it made the opening of the new theater a couple weeks later all the more exciting. And more meaningful.

Yes, I say “new” theater. It is true that the theater was renovated, but, on top of it being renamed the Donald F. Fruechte Theatre for the Performing Arts in honor of Ms. Elhai’s predecessor who founded the high school’s theater department and is just as legendary to those who attended CHS it is definitely a new space.

While I don’t know if I can call it beautiful, the theater is certainly no longer a dingey, cramped hole with, among other features, wheelchair accommodations that were, frankly, a joke. Not only do I no longer have to maneuver through a black backstage area in my wheelchair, but with comfortable flip-up seats instead of folding metal chairs and without steep stairs and narrow passageways, the theater is now more accessible and welcoming to everybody.

Because the theater was barely accessible and not that welcoming, I wasn’t seeing most of the remarkable work that Ms. Elhai and her students were putting on. And it’s really why I went to the production at Sycamore School.

I thought about all this when I attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony and opening with a line-up of school and city officials and other dignitaries last month, thrilled to see the changes made. I was also delighted that they were the result of a great, true community effort, with thousands and thousands of dollars given, earning a matching grant from the state.

But what I was really thinking on the bright, early spring afternoon was these kids deserve this!

For their hard, amazing work, stunningly evidenced in Spelling Bee, they deserve this community effort, this community support. Just as my friend said they deserve to be paid to play in West Hollywood, they deserve this nice, real, state-of-the-art theater instead of a dark hole-in-the-wall.

These bright, creative students, many of whom may have trouble fitting in in other areas of the campus, deserve this place to be safe and to grow and be their best. Like the boy who could barely speak in a math class I was in when at the high school and who I was amazed to see not only in a theater production but singing and dancing in the production.

As Andrew Lindvall, a 2010 CHS graduate in town during the week of the opening, commented, “Ms. Elhai was one of the first teachers I ever had who would give you the responsibility to do something and expected you to do it. There’s an intensity that has prepared me for everything I’ve done thereafter. You don’t just learn art here, you learn occupational skills.”

And there was this from CHS Principal Brett O’Connor: “To have students leaving with employable skills is good for the school, good for the community and good for the country. This is a program we can be very proud of.”

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