Friday night footlights: The story of a real-life high school musical

For theater teens, the spring musical is an annual ritual. As Spring Lake Park High staged “Cabaret,” we found drama behind the scenes as well as onstage.

Backstage at Spring Lake Park High, it’s all jitters and glitter.

The curtain is about to go up on the opening night of “Cabaret,” the spring musical. Ribald and packed with harsh social commentary, the show is a risky choice for a teen production, especially in conservative Anoka County.

Decked out in secondhand sequins, the cast works out pre-performance butterflies through horseplay and chatter, wolfing down last-minute granola bars and carrot sticks. The fingers of parent volunteers fly, daubing makeup and shortening tutus. There’s not a motionless person in sight, save one: the girl starring as Sally Bowles.

Madisen Dempsey stands as tall as her 4 feet, 11 inches allow, contemplating her reflection in the dressing-room mirror, willing a world-weary patina to cast the appropriate shadow on her cutie-pie countenance. Her pale shoulders bear the considerable burden of portraying the iconic nightclub chanteuse that so many famous actresses have played before, actresses whose ranks she fervently hopes to join.

On the field adjacent to the darkened auditorium, the Panthers lacrosse team swings its sticks. Around the corner, you can hear the faint splashes of swim-team practice. The athletes are oblivious, but for this dedicated band of brothers and sisters in drama, the most thrilling game of the season is about to go down.

Whether they can pull it off — after less than seven weeks of prep time — is anyone’s guess.

Way off Broadway

Even in the age of YouTube and “American Idol,” the spring musical is an enduring ritual in high schools across Minnesota — a rite of passage that many seniors anticipate more than prom, or even graduation. It’s a last hurrah, a period of intense togetherness before they say their final goodbyes.

For the key players in “Cabaret,” it represents something more, something personal. For Dempsey, it’s a chosen career path. For ambitious Luke Remme, who plays the show’s campy Emcee, it’s one more lark before getting serious with pre-med studies. For sophomore quiet guys Sam Fish and Cody Johnson, it’s the chance to radiate more exotic personalities than they do in real life. For dance captain Teya Warren, it’s a reason not to drop out of school.

Spring Lake Park High seems even farther from Minneapolis’ bustling theater district than the 12 miles of pothole-plagued Central Avenue that connect them, bordered by asphalt, strip malls and gas stations all the way to the horizon.

And impossibly far from Broadway, where Madisen aspires to land one day.

As her father points out, the school district “isn’t exactly known for the arts.” Its theater program has nowhere near the resources of suburban behemoths such as Burnsville or Apple Valley, which have as many as 2,000 kids in their senior class compared with the 337 at SLP High, which also draws students from Blaine and Fridley.

But this spring, for the first time, the school is part of the prestigious Spotlight program run by Hennepin Theatre Trust. Actors from nearly 40 Minnesota high schools will perform excerpts of their shows on downtown stages June 8-9, with finalists competing in a runoff for a trip to New York.

Theater director Kevin Dutcher had decided that these kids were ready.

Week 1: Setting the stage

“I used to love pretending I was someone else, someone quite mysterious and fascinating,” the flirty Sally Bowles says to naive American writer Cliff. “Until one day I grew up and realized I was mysterious and fascinating.”

Like Sally Bowles, Madisen is unfazed as she tackles the most sophisticated role on her already substantial résumé, including leads in “The Crucible” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” By the first script read-through, she’s already perfected her English accent.

“My dad has been so irritated with me doing it around the house all the time,” she says. “My boyfriend isn’t, though. We Skyped for three hours and he just started talking like that, too.”

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