An Appreciation: Behind the Scenes with the Phils at “Shrek: The Musical”
By Theodore P. Mahne
For its 2018-19 season, the Jesuit Philelectic Society is daringly presenting a pair of large-scale musical productions for its mainstage performances.
Currently on the boards of the Jesuit Auditorium is “Shrek: The Musical.” It will be followed in the spring with Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” Both shows featured plots presenting a different take on traditional fairy tales, and what happens after “happ’ly ever after.”
Since joining the Jesuit faculty a decade ago, I have usually written brief reviews to help promote the shows and the work of the students. As a longtime fan of the work of the Phils (the first shows I remember seeing on this stage were productions of “West Side Story” and “A Chorus Line” in the 1990s), that work has regularly impressed far beyond the mere “high school drama club” levels, often showing that the Phils truly are the resident theater company at Carrollton and Banks.
With “Shrek,” however, I am unable to provide an assessment of the performance, for I find myself on the opposite side of the footlights.
At the start of the school year, Phils director Kate Arthurs-Goldberg asked several faculty members to join the cast in four brief cameo roles, which open the show. This experience has deepened my levels of appreciation for not only the talent shown by the students, but also their levels of commitment, their supportive spirit of collegiality, and, most especially, their unflagging energy.
While such dedication is not unique to these student actors and crew members – Jesuit athletes and Blue Jay Band members, among others, clock countless hours in their pursuits. Yet most in the audience for “Shrek” or next semester’s “Into the Woods” are unaware of just how much time and hard work it takes to present those few hours of an evening’s entertainment.
From the leading players to the smallest ensemble roles, Arthurs-Goldberg continues to find a place for any student willing to share their talents. Many of those talents are offered where audiences never directly see them – in the backstage crew running the show. Under the direction of senior Alex Doll, crew chief and stage manager, these quiet students, dressed all in black to further cloak themselves, hustle about ensuring that the production moves smoothly and safely.
On stage, the depth of the Phils’ bench is seen in the leading roles, which are performed by students from nearly every grade level. Junior Ben Schaubhut tackles the daunting title role with commanding presence and voice. His Princess Fiona is given a powerful voice by Ursuline Academy senior Diana Ledet, a veteran member of the troupe. Sophomore Carter Morris throws all the slick attitude as the sidekick Donkey. And freshman Matthew Busenlener just about steals the show as the diminutive villain Lord Farquaad.
Throughout the ensemble, the colorful fairy tale characters are brought vividly to life by students from pre-freshmen to seniors, as well as several younger “Future Phils,” who ensure that the “Awww” factor remains high.
And then my faculty colleagues and I had the pleasure of opening the show. Geometry teacher Leslie Merritt, playing Mama Ogre, helped us all sing better. History teacher Wade Trosclair and Theology teacher Susan de Boisblanc played Fiona’s regal parents, and I was Papa Ogre.
Being behind the scenes also leads to a greater sense of the wealth of guidance and training our students receive from the professionals that Arthurs-Goldberg enlists to give the show its polish.
Choreographer Kenny Beck, Class of ’79, gets remarkable moves from the company, building complex designs step by step. Technical director and set designer Ron Goldberg guides the crew building confidence and skills. Accompanist Justin Blanchard prepares the cast musically with patience and precision (even somehow eliciting lyrical performances from certain untrained faculty members). And the artistry of makeup designer and former Phil Kaitlin Lombard helps the actors delineate characterizations.
To be able to perform with an orchestra led by Jason Giaccone, Jesuit’s director of Bands, gives the students an even greater sense of professional support.
And as the director, Arthurs-Goldberg is loving but demanding, expecting the best and determined to bring that out in her students. With her assistant, Adam Naquin, Class of ’13, she shows students that they can stretch and grow beyond their own expectations. And she makes it clear that no divas are allowed – everyone is contributing to the overall success of the entire production.
And, yes, that feeling, that rush that comes up through the body from the floor of the stage when that audience out there in the dark responds with laughter, with cheers and with applause defies description. It is as infectious, and even addictive, as many actor friends have described.
Kate’s care for her students shows up when I see them in my own classroom. Boys who are quiet and reserved but find their voice on the stage of the auditorium become stronger students, as well, joining in classroom discussions with increased confidence, willing to take a chance even of making a mistake, knowing that it’s the only way to continue growing and learning.
So thanks, Ms. A, for the experience (and your patience).
In addition to his role as Papa Ogre, and teaching theology to the sophomore class, Ted Mahne is the chief theater critic for The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com.
Tickets are available now, online.
Remaining show dates and times:
Thursday, Nov. 15 at 6:30 p.m.
Friday, Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 17 at 7:30 p.m.