Saturday was the final performance, not only of the three-night run of Shrek the Musical at Cedarbrook Middle School in suburban Cheltenham, just outside Philadelphia; but the final curtain for the school and its well regarded performing arts program, at least in its present form. This spirited performance of Shrek rocked because Philly cares about the arts, and the swan song was emotional for this school condemned as toxic.
Plagued by recurrent mechanical issues, leaks and aggressive mold, parts of the school have been abandoned in turn as they were declared hazardous. Students began staged redistribution to four sites earlier in the winter. The cost of building a new school is estimated at $55 million– and to take five years— while relocating the children to their new schools will ultimately run to $2.1 million. Beyond preparing for the performance, anxiety has been high with many snow days, uncertainty about safety and whether the show would go on, to say nothing of the general state of disruption.
Jim Carlin, head of maintenance at the school for 18 years, has done yeoman’s labor keeping the school running as well as possible under the circumstances. In the course of a period that saw his children pass through the school, he has stood in the hall for many rehearsals and performances. As he and everyone in the building know, this is a very special program that affirms the values of teaching drama and performance; students made a serious commitment starting in the fall and signed a contract. No more than two absences, rehearsals on weekends and the anticipation of intense emotional engagement and amazing collaboration: with high standards, lots of support and good outcomes.
The sense of camaraderie among cast, parents and audience members extended out to the lobby during and after the sold-out show. This Philly suburban school rocked together with Shrek and his musical mayhem despite the toxicity of parts of the condemned building. This was not just a meek performance for the beloved cooing grandparents and others attending solely to support the kids in question. This cast gave back, met the audience with a real connection; the audience received fresh enthusiasm, idealism, feelings of elation and the awkwardness that the play is all about. A couple of well-mannered high school boys were there with a toddler sister who sat enraptured through the show, only occasionally climbing into big brother’s lap. Sara Ravitch, alum of Cheltenham High and of Cedarbrook’s performing arts program, was there to show her support on this night of emotion. Now a graduate student student in special education at Temple U., she said in no uncertain terms that she would not be the person she is, were it not for her participation in the program, including the 2004 production of 42nd Street.
Hundreds of students have sung, acted and danced with Robin Rosenberg, director and co-producer of Shrek the Musical. She has directed or produced 30 dramas and musicals since becoming drama director in 1999. Music director and co-producer Noah Mallitz has produced or directed eighteen shows. With the support of parents and student directors, young actors and actresses have acquired musicality, polish, composure and admirable elocution. The vibe of interaction between cast and audience as they mixed in the lobby was remarkably bubbly and energized. At intermission the audience buys chocolate kisses (five for a $1) and messages: good wishes written on slips to be dropped in the paper bags elegantly turned-out with photo and name of the cast member.
Many productions by children are authentic, much-celebrated for overall spirit of participation, and beg acceptance of the challenge of training them from where they actually are. These children are ridiculously cute in forest creatures costumes, as pint-sized townspeople, or with facial prosthethics and kooky Tina Turner wigs. They have technique and stage presence; the cast knows to stand there, sing and look back at the audience. The principals, Shrek, Fiona, Donkey and Lord Farquad work well together and get to strut their stuff.
The delightful harmonies of I Know it’s Today with Young Fiona, Teen Fiona and Fiona showed refinement. There were nice moments of contrapuntal voices, crisply delivered; and all-time cute: Morning Person with Fiona, Pied Piper, and rats in taps keeping up a lively rhythm. Mallitz lead the band with precision and care. They were as tight as a professional band, even though eight of them are from Cheltenham High. They all sounded good with the smooth sounds of six very refined adult players: a reed, a horn, a guitar, keyboard and percussion, plus a piano that tenderly supports the voices.
Fiona showed lovely vocal tones, sweetness and spirit as well as presence. Shrek got to be as goofy and awkward as one could want; he seemed to be twice as tall as she, and much of the rest of the cast. A favorite exquisitely considered gesture came from the head of the knights, as she brought her unruly troop to order: silencing them without a word, turning her head with a look over her shoulder and and a menacing pointed finger.
Clearly the show will go on for these children and for the exemplary performing arts program. As the musical legacy of this condemned school continues to rock elsewhere in Philly, the toxicity of the building seems worse than Shrek’s swamp. More noxious still, though, is the ragged condition of Philadelphia schools, underfunded and failing to provide enough students access to programs that elevate their spirits.
By Lawrence M. Shapiro