Daniel Robert Sullivan has performed in ”Jersey Boys” as Tommy DeVito to rave reviews in Toronto and now Las Vegas. He’s also the author of “Places, Please! Becoming a Jersey Boy.” He’s the author of unique play developed with the Roundabout Theatre Company currently being performed by high school students around the country. Thanks to Daniel, I had the opportunity to see the play in Milwaukee and, before the show, spend time with the director, cast, and crew of the show.
Prospect High – Brooklyn at the Milwaukee High School of the Arts is what happens when you combine the talents of a powerful story, a playwright with the insights of Daniel Robert Sullivan, a director who can efficiently guide, and a motivated cast and crew of young aspiring performers talented beyond their years. Having the opportunity to chat with the cast for almost an hour before the show added an insightful dimension to this powerful experience.
With a limited time to chat with the cast, my primary focus and strongest personal interest was on what motivated these young people – what sparked their interest in performing.
A second interest that I hoped to explore was the multi-faceted talent these young people were developing. For me this was sparked by my connection to the play’s primary author, Daniel Robert Sullivan. He’s an actor, performing nightly as Tommy DeVito in the Las Vegas cast of Jersey Boys. Yet here he’s written a moving dramatic play about the daily challenges of today’s teens.
It should not be surprising that the motivations for this cast were as diverse as the cast itself. While composed of high school students – a fascinating unifying element, it was also a cast of African-American, Hispanic, White, gay, straight, short, and tall – and each identifying with themes of the show, from bullying, discrimination, and the overwhelming problem of understanding and being understood.
Their individual motivations were fascinating and I know I could have spent hours with each cast member learning more about their “stories.” I struggled to stop their energetic introductions, forced myself several times to say “who’s next?” when I really just wanted to say “tell me more.”
And with the diversity of their experiences came both the similarities and differences in their motivations. I was particularly interested in what provided “the spark.” Was it a movie, a book, an artist, or…?
I was delighted to hear from several that sparks came from music their parents played in the house. I was equally thrilled to hear about shows that sparked their passions, from “the first time I saw “Phantom of the Opera,” to “Lion King,’ and “The Color Purple,” “In the Heights,” and even “Gone with the Wind.” We all laughed as Disney movies were frequently mentioned including one cast member who admitted as a child she wanted to marry Simba. I listened, fascinated, as individual stars from movies or television provided sparks, from Cat Woman, to “Phoebe” from “Charmed” to Halle Barry, to “from the minute I first saw her, I wanted to dance like Janet Jackson.” I was struck by several who saw movies or plays as an “escape” from the challenges they faced, particularly from one who was “always bullied.” I was surprised on how the decades’ difference in ages to me still produced similarities with some Disney movies and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
My time with these young actors passed too quickly but it was quickly followed by their moving performances. Each element of the story is thought-provoking and unfortunately timely. Personally I was particularly disturbed by the primary theme of bullying, disgusted by the lack of meaningful response from those “in authority.” What really hit home on the bullying theme was Daniel Robert Sullivan’s accurate insights on a clearly predictable consequence. As a lifelong teacher, I was equally disturbed by the “rules are rules” portrayal of a teacher whose character was on target for several I’ve known.
The version presented by the Milwaukee High School of the Arts was presented as a single, one-hour, act. Before its inevitable conclusion, I was contemplating additional conversations and characters that could further enlighten audiences. And despite the darkness of the story, the show ultimately concluded on a positive note with: “No, c’mon! This can’t have a good ending. But it can have an ending that looks for what to do next. And understanding – or at least, at least having a conversation where we try to understand – that’s what to do next.”
Thank you to Daniel Robert Sullivan for making this possible. And to Rebecca Marten, the Director, and the wonderful cast and crew for sharing this time with me: Israel Gonzalez, Beatrice Low, Janiyah Moore, P.J. Rivers, Xarion Latimore, Parish Johnson, Sam Hogan, Deija Richards, Nadjah Hasan, Maggie Murphy, Maya Joplin, and Gus Rich.