Diamonds in the rough
When “Godspell, Jr.” opens at the Vilar Center for the Arts in Beaver Creek next weekend, the stage will be glittering with far more than footlights and sparkling props. Some of the Vail Valley’s most talented children will take to the stage with the Vail Performing Arts Academy, and many of them may be the girl or boy next door.”Godspell, Jr.,” playing Aug. 6 and 7 at the Vilar, is a slightly abridged version of the classic Broadway hit, with exhilarating music, invigorating dancing, and delightful staging. Told through a series of parables, Godspell follows Jesus’ life from the time he meets John the Baptist until his death – but in the language and music of today, with humor and fun to spare.”Godspell is really, really upbeat,” said “Godspell, Jr.” Director Beth Swearingen-Kuntz. “The music is much more fun and contemporary than anything we’ve done in a long time. It’s just a classic piece of musical theater.” Musical numbers range from blues to vaudeville to hip hop. Have you ever imagined Jesus breakdancing? He does.Yet, behind the scenes, Godspell is about far more than the story on stage. It is a four-week-long journey of discovery for many of the children involved in the musical.”It’s a wonderful opportunity to do a musical production every year at the Vilar,” said Eagle Valley Middle School Teacher Tommy Dodge. Dodge, who heads the music and athletic programs at the middle school, also serves as “Godspell’s” assistant musical director.
In his two years at Eagle Valley Middle, Dodge has increased the enrollment in his jazz and band programs to 110 children, while coaching girls’ and boys’ basketball, as well as girls’ volleyball. A part-time fire fighter, this is the energetic 28-year-olds’ second summer season with the Vail Performing Arts Academy.Dodge, who holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Prince Edward Island, has performed for years; first in a high school band, and later in musical theater. Currently, he is recording a demo, and still pursues his own music. Classically trained in Italian opera, including with a vocal teacher who studied under Pavarotti himself, he was encouraged to pursue a career in opera. But when opera school proved too expensive, he turned instead to teaching.Dodge said he quickly became “addicted” to making children happy, when he became a teacher, and is awed by the impact he found he can have on students. “It’s wonderful, after watching them struggle, to see them start to get better,” he said, adding that no dollar amount can replace those rewards. Working with the Vail Performing Arts Academy’s summer musicals is a chance to combine his first passion, music, with his love of teaching. “I like taking some of these shy people and making them into show people,” he said.A Canadian, Dodge’s work visa is up next year, and he is currently seeking a way to extend it, so he can continue to work with the students he has grown to care about. One of the students he’d like to have a chance to work with in the future at Eagle Valley Middle is Hailey Vest, an Eagle Valley Elementary student who has a key roll in the Godspell production.at a glance:
Holy dramaThe Vail Performing Arts Academy will offer three performances of Godspell, Jr. at the Vilar Center for the Arts in Beaver Creek: At 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 6 and Saturday, Aug. 7, and a matinee at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 7. Tickets are $10, and may be purchased by calling 845-TIXS.At 10-years-old, Hailey Vest already has more stage experience than most kids dream about, and her clear voice lends itself well to her solo “Light of the World,” in Godspell, Jr. From the age of three, she put on impromptu plays with her mother at home, but it wasn’t until she auditioned for the Eagle Valley Children’s Chorale and won a coveted spot, that she discovered she had talent.”I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, people really like me singing,'” Vest said. That eureka moment lead to school plays and dancing lessons, and a stint as the lead, Dorothy, in the Children’s Theater production of “The Wizard of Oz” last summer. She has also been competing in talent shows since the age of 5, often winning prizes. But Vest said performing isn’t about winning. “It’s about getting up there and showing everybody what you can do … and having fun.” Vest is having fun in Godspell, Jr. and learning a lot. “The directors are so into it; you can tell they are having a good time,” Vest said. “It’s fun.”
Yet, Vest is just one of 77 children, ranging from age seven to 17, in the Godspell, Jr. cast. “This is our biggest cast ever,” said Vail Performing Arts Academy executive director Annah Scully.Several of the cast members are from Gypsum and Eagle, who make the trek each day to the Eagle-Vail Pavilion for long days of rehearsals, lessons and self-discovery. Tara Dalbow, Tessa Allen, Austin Woodworth, Jake Dutmer and Sarah, Joey and Alex Cooper also share the stage with Vest. Vest said it is nice to be able to carpool with some of them, and to be able to act and hangout with her down-valley friends.Talent abounds in Godspell, Jr., from 14-year-old Sean Pack, who gives a wonderfully memorable performance as Jesus, to Aaron Szindler as Judas, Harrison Huntoon as John the Baptist, and the many talented soloists, dancers and entire ensemble. “This is the strongest group of singers and soloists I think we have ever had,” said Swearingen-Kuntz. The staff is talent-filled, too. In addition to Dodge, Swearingen-Kuntz has played leads on Broadway, and co-director/choreographer Colin Meiring is a two-time World Champion Ballroom Dancer, who has tangoed on stage at the Grammies with Alicia Keyes. Musical director Laurie Kay Brassfield is now appearing in “Jekyl and Hyde” in Denver.Swearingen-Kuntz said it is both the staff’s job and reward to help the children they work with come out of their cocoons and discover their own true potential whether they ever become a Bernadette Peters, or not.”It’s such a mission with me, to instill the love of theater in children,” said Swearingen-Kuntz. “They’re like diamonds in the rough. Discovering their talent is rewarding in a way I never expected.”