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.”
With a cast of 37, this “Cabaret” is more complicated than most high school productions, and deals with far more serious issues: anti-Semitism, prostitution, abortion. Dutcher chose it partly as a senior-year showcase for Madisen, the only cast member who plans an acting career.
Unusually centered for 18, she exudes a subtle, likable confidence. She waxes enthusiastic as she recalls a trip to New York with her parents last year:
“Dude, our hotel was right by the ticket stand, so I got to see three shows. The theaters are so beautiful and old. I find it hard to picture myself living there because it’s so crazy, but I feel I’m going to have to if I want to do this for real.”
As the Kit Kat girls of the fictional cabaret fidget and twirl around her, Madisen is the tiniest person on stage, but the largest presence.
“I have to invent a back story for every character I do,” she says during a break. “How did Sally Bowles get to be who she is?”
Her answer: Sally is like Edith on “Downton Abbey,” the misunderstood middle sister of a privileged family, and has run off to do her own thing.
When Madisen’s parents asked her what the show was about, she replied simply, “Germany.” After a quick visit to Wikipedia, Dad wondered, “How are they going to pull this off?”
Answer: by scrubbing the script enough to head off parental concerns at the pass. When Dutcher put the cap back on his black felt-tip, this version of “Cabaret” rivaled one of J. Edgar Hoover’s censored FBI files.
Week 2: Flat notes, flat feet
In the jazz room, vocal coach Mary Rudquist leads the ensemble players through some difficult harmonies. As the singers butcher “I Don’t Care Much,” it sounds like they certainly don’t.
“Sopranos, I’m not going to rescue you,” admonishes Rudquist. “But I probably will help the altos.”
On stage next door, choreographer Megan Kelly Hubbell attempts to turn lumbering lunks into graceful goose-steppers. “And butt to left and right … and right … and goose! And goose!”
Dutcher raises his arms like a conductor about to begin a concert. “Friends! Friends! Anyone seen Madisen? Short girl with glasses? And where are my Nazis? I need my Nazis up here!”
Dutcher, whose varied career has included programming music at Twins games, is a benevolent carnival barker of a director who commands respect simply by caring so much. He teaches grade school in St. Paul while moonlighting with as many as three school plays at a time.
At Spring Lake Park, as at many metro schools, theater programs have evolved from just tossing the English teacher some extra work. Outside professionals are hired for each element of the show: director, choreographer, vocal coach, set designer, costumer, orchestra leader.
It costs more money, but it’s more efficient. The leads and the chorus can practice simultaneously in different rooms, and not every cast member needs to show up every day, leaving more time for homework, after-school jobs such as Luke Remme’s sales position at Best Buy, and extracurriculars such as Madisen’s piano lessons.
Still, they must make every second of rehearsal time count.
Week 3: Offstage dramas
In the Panthers wrestling room, redolent with stale sweat and talcum powder, lovelorn fruit vendor Herr Schultz is presenting a pineapple to his landlady, Fraulein Schneider.
There couldn’t be a more incongruous setting for this tender scene, but the auditorium stage is occupied by Kit Kat girls learning their steps.
A group of pasty-legged guys in shorts rolls in. It’s the pole vaulters, insisting it’s their practice time.
“Whoa, it’s like the Sharks and the Jets,” quips tech supervisor Ryan Julien. But before any angry finger snapping can begin, the athletes agree to wait.
Watching the Kit Kat girls rehearse, you’d never know that Teya Warren’s pivotal role as dance captain is in danger, with her bright smile and crisp, confident moves.
Students involved in theater are held to the same academic standards as athletes, and Teya is one of four cast members who have been read the riot act by Dutcher for being in danger of failing classes. She’ll have to attend makeup classes and file progress reports — or start coaching her replacement.
“I was unmotivated about school,” Teya admits. “I just want to dance, and didn’t see any reason for me to be here anymore. But getting this part — such an important part — made me realize I didn’t want to lose it.”
Week 4: Friends and flirts
“This is my fourth show kissing Nick,” Madisen says of co-star Nick Ludgate, who plays Cliff. “I’ve fallen for him a couple of times, but that’s all over. I’m good friends with his girlfriend.”
Crushes are always part of the drama with any teen production. But so are the much deeper alliances of friendship, forged in between memorizing lines and dance steps.
Asked to do a sound check, Sam Fish, who plays Herr Schultz, turns to Cody Johnson with a fake-threatening glare.
“I hate you,” he intones. “I hate everything you stand for. I hate your red hair.”
Stone-faced, Cody adopts a blasé pose.
Good friends for a few years now, he and Sam are the Mutt and Jeff of the cast.
Sam is a tall, heavyset fellow with a sweet smile offsetting hipster mutton chops. When he walks, he seems to always be trying to minimize his large frame.
“Acting is so satisfying,” Sam says. “You can just become whoever you want to be.”
Cody, who plays affable party boy turned officious Nazi Ernst, is short and slight, swimming in his character’s heavy trench coat, with a mop of fire-orange hair that contrasts with his shyness. He wears a grave expression that now and then splits into a wide smile.
“Sam forced me to try out for a play in eighth grade, and now I love it,” he says. “For me, it’s like the audience doesn’t exist. Just what’s happening on stage does.”
Week 5: Tight with the techies
There’s a burst of panic at stage right: The floor drain in the prop room has backed up again, sending a steadily rising pool of gray-brown water perilously close to costumes and scenery.
The tech crew springs into action, moving out boxes of shoes in an assembly line. Ryan Julien has trained them well.
The only full-time school staffer involved with the show, Julien mentors his crew from clueless freshman newbies who couldn’t train a spotlight on a sleeping elephant to seasoned seniors like Zep Elkerton. Their performances are every bit as important to him as those played out under the spotlights.
Over and over, the kids in the cast say, “We’re like a family.” But nowhere is that more true than for the techies, who work events year-round in the arts center. Many of them also have an artier appearance — goth clothing, two-toned hair.
“The actors get told how to be creative,” says sophomore crew member Klebo Skjervold-David. “We are creative.”
Week 6: Donning identities
“I-i-i-t’s lederhosen time!” trumpets exuberant beanpole Luke Remme, posing in leather shorts with over-the-knee socks, one of 12 outfits he’ll wear in the show.
For this bunch of kids, costumes are the candy store. On this day, the cast must try on every outfit to pass inspection under the stage lights.
Sam Fish is virtually strutting, tickled to wear something tailored to his hard-to-fit frame. “I feel like a tree,” he says dryly, waiting for the others to get it: His vest was leaf green, his trousers bark brown.
Costumer Holly Maeckelbergh, who became a mother just two weeks ago, studies the Kit Kat girls lined up on stage as newborn Dominic sleeps in the carrier perched on a seat behind her. What exactly is she looking for?
“Making sure no inappropriate skin is showing,” she says. “Rachael, why is your hem so short?”
Five days out: Meet the parents
Perched in the kitchen of her family’s roomy home on a large, woodsy lot in Blaine, Madisen recounts her stage career.
She made her debut playing a happy dwarf in a middle-school play. Two years later, when she belted out her first musical number as the lead in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” her parents, Michael and Michelle Dempsey, were stunned.
“We didn’t know she could sing,” Michelle says. She is not, they discovered, the kind of girl who loudly practices in her bedroom.
“We aren’t stage parents,” says Michael, clad in paint-spattered overalls from helping out with the set. “Even when it became clear in grade school she was comfortable in front of an audience, we didn’t start driving her to the Children’s Theatre or say ‘Let’s move to L.A.’ You have to find a balance.”
Madisen applied only at colleges specializing in the performing arts. She’ll begin studies at Columbia College Chicago in the fall.
Being an actress means “you’re going to have to eat a lot of ramen,” her father tells her.
“Ramen is comfort food,” she replies, shooting a sidelong glance his way.
Final week: Words of warning
“Friends! Friends! No idle talk!” Dutcher barks, his soul patch bobbing up and down on his chin as he chomps extra-ferociously on his ever-present gum. “There’s only thinking about what comes next.”
It’s called Hell Week, those final, frenetic days preceding opening night on April 24, and everyone tries to avoid even thinking the word “disaster.”
On Monday, the first full run-through with the tech crew, spotlights seem to hit their targets purely by chance. None of the mikes work when needed. Backstage, the orchestra conductor can’t hear his cues.
Hearing the cast’s murmured grumbles, choreographer Hubbell stands to deliver an impromptu lecture.
“This rehearsal is for the tech people. You’ve had weeks. They have only days. You have to bring 110 percent right now. You’re low-energy and boring. This is supposed to be fun, not a root canal.”
Curtain time: Goose bumps and Applebee’s
The cast assembles in a circle for their warm-up ritual.
“You guys are 98.4 percent of the way there,” Dutcher tells them. “Let’s bring the other 1.6 percent tonight.”
Despite worries that the show’s serious content will dampen ticket sales, more than 200 people file into the auditorium. Luke Remme’s grandmother, Elizabeth DeWolfe, thought “Cabaret” was too dark for high school, but by intermission, she has reconsidered.
“It’s intelligent and sophisticated, and that’s how high school should be now,” she says.
Singers struggle to find their pitch, dancers lag, scene changes run long. But what stands out are the goose bump-inducing moments: Madisen belting out “and I love a cabaret,” Luke being dragged away in striped pajamas, a pink triangle slapped on his chest, saying “Auf Wiedersehen, à bientôt, goodbye.”
Those moments are reminders of the magic of live theater — and of how a bunch of kids can rise above limited resources and life experience to conjure a show as emotionally powerful as anything Broadway could deliver.
After the post-show glad-handing gantlet, Madisen leans against a window in the lobby, looking dazed. A castmate throws her arms around her and says, “You killed!”
Madisen smiles wanly, looking like she wants nothing more than a good long nap. But first, the cast is going to Applebee’s. Then there are classes tomorrow, another show Friday night, and prom on Saturday. Next weekend, they’ll do it all again.
And then it’s over. Auf Wiedersehen, à bientôt, goodbye — and on to dreaming of the next show. Madisen and Luke have heard that Hubbell is choreographing a summer production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
They’re both thinking of trying out. In fact, they’re almost positive they will.