HOWELL – One actor stands alone at the front, singing a solo part. The director offers instruction, all the while watching the other cast members getting ready to join in. She quickly turns and throws out a wardrobe suggestion to the show’s costumer.
“They can be in cloaks, whatever you want,” says the director, who quickly snaps her head around, constantly checking for the rest of the cast. The director cues the remaining actors to get ready to enter and join in with the singing. The actors move in near perfect harmony like a school of fish during the performance, which is all the more impressive because it is only the first time they’ve run through the piece in its entirety.
That a local theater company has been bringing live entertainment to audiences since 2011 might not necessarily be considered particularly novel. However, when it involves actors who range in age from eight to 18 as part of the Howell P.A.L. programs, it becomes noteworthy.
The Howell Police Athletic League Theatre Company will soon lift the curtain on their latest production, Les Miserables on July 8 and 9. Under the direction of Gillian Bryck, the production will debut at the Strand Theater in Lakewood.
Each summer, the P.A.L. company performs a summer show that gives area youth the chance to showcase their talents through the theater experience. In addition, the P.A.L. program also runs classes called The Actor’s Toolbox, and Musical Theater Dance which provides instruction for those aspiring to be actors. The latest production held open auditions during the first week of May and went into rehearsals on May 9.
Assisting Bryck is production manager and choreographer, Cindy Lutz, as well as the company’s costumer, Jacquie Revier. No stranger to the stage herself, Bryck has appeared in the Circle in the Square in New York, as well as the Algonquin, Count Basie, and Strand theaters. Lutz, who studied education, also took a minor in theater dance and worked for 13 years as a choreographer and stage manager in Westport, Conn.
The theater company was the brainchild of Bryck, a retired teacher, who pitched the idea to P.A.L. President Chris Hill after he approached her about possibly doing a limited run summer program. The theater company idea drew support from Harold Foley, who had worked as the Educational Program Director, as well as current P.A.L. Program Coordinator Jaime Szyarto.
“I explained what my idea was,” said Bryck, recounting her meeting with Hill and Foley. “There was no community theater here in Howell, and so that’s how it all got started. Our first show we did at Middle School South. I took Cindy on, because Cindy and I had worked together at South, and then we came together to do our first show.”
In the ensuing years, the theater company has expanded, with many of the members having literally grown up on stage. From the humble beginnings of Annie performed on stage at the middle school, the current production, Les Miserables, has 42 members in the cast. While nearly half of the actors are from Howell Township, some come from as far away as South Plainfield and Waretown.
“Every year we get more and more kids,” explains Bryck. “We started out with only Howell kids. Now it seems like our name is growing, and people are realizing that it’s a legit theater company.”
To say that the cast is talented is an understatement. They sound like professionals, and play off against one another with alacrity. Even their subtle facial expressions are detailed, and would have O’Neill or Ionesco nodding in approval.
Set in France during the Eighteenth Century, Les Miserables is the musical adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel that tells the story of struggle and redemption during the French Rebellion. Beachwood native Aiden Panno is well-cast in the role of Jean Valjean, with a presence on the stage that sets the tone for the rest of the actors. Cast in the role of Fantine, young Sophia Nelson, from Spring Lake, holds notes so long that the mouths of audience members will be agape during her performance.
“It just keeps getting better and better, and more talent comes in,” Bryck says of the theater company. “My goal was to make it as true of a theater experience as possible. It’s not just a Howell P.A.L. program, it’s now a true theater company.”
For anyone who is under the misconception that these are kids doing a play, nothing could be further from the truth. These are young actors, professionals in training, more than half of whom want to pursue the craft of acting either on the stage or elsewhere.
Actor Brian Beehler shines as Inspector Javert, gifted Daniel Arce is cast as Marius, and Emma Ballinger’s talent is on display as Cosette.
On average the cast rehearses eight hours a week for eight weeks under the guidance of Bryck and Lutz, but is required to do additional practice at home. While there are moments of levity during the rehearsal, it is clear from the outset that the cast is there to work. Carrying a wealth of experience behind her, Bryck infuses the cast with energy, and it flows from her through them.
While Panno is singing, Bryck is assembling and grabbing cast members for the court scene. She suddenly turns and yells, “Hold!”
The music stops. Something’s wrong.
“I need a criminal,” Bryck declares, snatching someone from the cast as she turns to Revier. Revier quickly asks the cast member her name and jots it down. The criminal’s costume will need to be fitted perfectly. No detail is overlooked.
“This needs to be a breakable chair,” says the director as two actors rehearse a scene involving a scuffle. As the performers are singing, Bryck is working on blocking, which involves telling the actors where they need to be standing or what they need to be doing. She is constantly instructing, pointing to the actors to get ready, moving the performers into the proper positions and even grabbing them by the shoulders to place them where they need to be.
“No, you’re not on yet,” says Bryck to one of the cast, “but you’ve got to be ready.”
If there’s any conversation to the side, she quickly gives a “Shhhh!” and the cast drops quiet. If a cast member is not present, she grabs someone else and plugs that person into the role, because the show must go on.
Rehearsal ends, and the director calls the cast together to take a seat on the floor before her. They’ve made tremendous progress in the short amount of time they have been learning the lines, but there’s still more work to be done.
“You guys listened and you learned,” Bryck says to them, but she quickly follows up the praise with a reminder about the next rehearsal time, and to continue their practice at home. But for this dedicated cast, it’s more of a reminder than an order.
Les Miserables runs for just two nights, Friday July 8 and Saturday July 9 at the Strand Theater, 400 Clifton Avenue in Lakewood. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained from the website hpaltc.booktix.com.