Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
Clayton County Public Schools students have presented a number of tales over the years as the school system's annual all-county musical, but the district has never done a production quite like this year's show.
Over the past 13 years, the school system's fine arts department has staged productions of shows including "The King and I," "The Music Man," "Seussical, the Musical," "Annie," and "The Wiz." But this year's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," the district's 14th all-county musical, marks the first time the district has performed a rock opera.
Rock operas differ from traditional musicals in that the story is told entirely through songs, with no dialogue between musical numbers, said Demetrice Cunningham, who plays the title role of "Joseph" in the show.
"It's more difficult to practice it because you have to run it with the music, and the music has to be there at all times," said Cunningham, 16, a sophomore at the district's Fine Arts Magnet High School, located at Mt. Zion High School.
The production will be performed Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m., and on Sunday at 2:30 p.m., at the Clayton County Public Schools Performing Arts Center, which is located at 2530 Mt. Zion Parkway, in Jonesboro. Tickets can be purchased for $5 in advance, and $7 at the door. Advance tickets can be obtained by calling the Performing Arts Center at (770) 473-2875.
The school system's all-county production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" has a cast of 82 students, representing approximately half of the district's 60 schools, according to Kathy Baker, the director and producer for the production.
Many of the high school students come from the district's Fine Arts Magnet High School, but the cast also includes two dozen elementary school students who come from elementary schools across the district, Baker said.
The rock opera begins with a narrator, played by Fine Arts Magnet High School freshman, Irmaneli Rodriguez, singing to a group of young school children.
"We look for a show that we can easily put the children in," Baker said.
According to Webber's web site, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," which is based on the biblical story of Jacob's son, Joseph, who was thrown into a well by his 10 brothers, was first produced as a short "pop cantata" for a school choir in 1968.
"This is the first time we've done exclusively all music in a musical so this has been a challenge for all of us," Baker said. "It took a little bit longer for some of the kids to understand what's going on, because they are not all vocalists first ... Having them grasp an understanding of what's happening in each scene, because it's not explained in dialogue, was the biggest challenge we faced."
But grasping each scene was not the only challenge for some cast members, said Rodriguez. Some of the cast members, such as herself, have to sing throughout most of the production, which lasts roughly an hour and a half, she said.
"It's kind of challenging because I'm basically singing continuously throughout the show," Rodriguez said. "[Music Director Jenny Wilson] will round us up before each rehearsal, and does scales and warm-up exercises with us to get our voices ready."
Wilson said she does has done two, two-hour vocal rehearsals per week, in addition to the rehearsals that included the other aspects of the show, since rehearsals began in September. She said there are 17 songs that the students sing in during the show.
"We've focused on using good diction, singing and harmonizing," she said. "I'm very excited about the progress the students have made, especially the [actors playing the] brothers. Many of them were not primarily singers when we started rehearsals, and they've stepped up in a big way."
While some cast members, and members of the production staff, found challenges as tasks to overcome, one person, Costume Designer Susan Burden, who is also a part-time employee of the school system's technology department, said she took her challenge as a chance to get creative with her work.
Burden designed, and created, the costumes the cast members wear, including the "Technicolor Dreamcoat" that the title suggests Cunningham wears in the show. What she came up with was a nine-color coat that fans out at the waist, with panels of blue, green, red, purple, gold, orange, yellow, aqua blue and turquoise.
"I knew it needed to be full because they [Baker and other production staff members] wanted the brothers to be able to hold it out like a fan," Burden said. "And with the colors, I just thought of the rainbow, and all the colors in it, and decided to have a coat that looked like the rainbow."
As the first public performance draws near, Cunningham said audiences can expect to be treated to a spectacle of singing and dancing.
"It's awesome," he said. "I don't know how else to explain it."