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Charlotte Walkey, playing Ariel, and Lucas Mulhall, playing Ren, rehearse a dance from “Footloose,” the YSHS/MMS spring musical directed by Lorrie Sparrow-Knapp and produced by Ara Beal. The musical runs over two weekends, opening on Friday, March 4, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m.; Sunday performances are at 2 p.m. All shows take place at Mills Lawn School. (Photo by Audrey Hackett)

Charlotte Walkey, playing Ariel, and Lucas Mulhall, playing Ren, rehearse a dance from “Footloose,” the YSHS/MMS spring musical directed by Lorrie Sparrow-Knapp and produced by Ara Beal. The musical runs over two weekends, opening on Friday, March 4, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m.; Sunday performances are at 2 p.m. All shows take place at Mills Lawn School. (Photo by Audrey Hackett)

Yellow Springs High School dancers cut ‘Footloose’

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One week and one day out from opening night, the cast and crew of “Footloose” was hard at work. Rehearsal began at 6:30 p.m. in the chorus room at Yellow Springs High School. “We’re in clean-up mode!” roared Lorrie Sparrow-Knapp, the show’s director. Thirty or so voices warmed up together, filling the room with crisp sounds: “va, va, va,” “no, no, no, no, no” and several rounds of “red leather, yellow leather.”

Warm-ups over, Sparrow-Knapp coached a group of girls through a tricky passage in “Holding out for a Hero.”

“Like a fire in my blood, like a fire in my blood, like a fire in my blood,” they sang — an urgent build exploding into pure emotion. “Let’s go back and clean that up!” Sparrow-Knapp directed. They did. They did again. They did again, beautifully.

“Finally! We have cracked that nut!” Sparrow-Knapp exulted. The singers’ faces were flushed with effort and joy. “Now let’s move on to the next thing,” she said, all business. They did.

Meanwhile, out in the hall, several dancers rehearsed the opening number, “Footloose.” “Now I gotta cut loose, footloose. Kick off your Sunday shoes,” they sang under their breath, executing a quick sequence of steps. A little distance away, sophomore Lucas Mulhall, who plays Ren McCormack, and junior Nicklas “Bear” Wright, who plays Reverend Shaw Moore, faced off in a tense scene from Act 2. “Those wounds are not healed,” Mulhall said, his voice full of urgent conviction. Just then, senior Eilis Price, the show’s stage manager, walked in from the gym. “We’re all lifting platforms,” she announced. The cast and crew had been waiting for the boys’ basketball team, fresh from a district victory, to finish practice. Now the gym was clear. Time to move the platforms in.

Last Thursday offered just one glimpse behind the scenes of a production that’s been in rehearsal five nights a week since the beginning of January. Directed by Sparrow-Knapp and produced by Ara Beal, the production is an ambitious undertaking, involving 30 cast members, 20 crew, more than a dozen songs and dance numbers (not including reprises), as well as a compelling plot with considerable emotional depth. “Footloose” is this year’s YSHS/McKinney Middle School spring musical, and students from seventh through twelfth grade are taking part. James Johnston is the music director; Mary Fahrenbruck the accompanist; Ali Thomas and Jamie Wilke the choreographers. Ed Knapp, Sparrow-Knapp’s husband, is the show’s tech director.

“It’s an extraordinarily complex piece,” Sparrow-Knapp said last week. “Singing rock ‘n’ roll is not easy. These are tight harmonies. They’re songs that are well known that have to be interpreted uniquely, as well as honored for what they are.”

Plus, she said, “you really have to dance.” The dancing is fast. “Ali Thomas said that this music is like running an eight-minute mile with wind sprints in the middle.”

At the heart of “Footloose” is a story of loss and change.

“It’s an amazing story of a boy abandoned by his father and a man who’s lost his son. They’re processing their anger and grief, and it’s affecting the whole town around them,” Sparrow-Knapp explained. It’s fundamentally a story of teenagers, a story of repression breaking through to self-expression, which makes it an ideal vehicle for a teenaged cast, she added. And because it’s a story of teenagers, there’s some sexuality, drinking and profanity.

“We want to honor the script without glorifying the behavior,” she explained.

Audience members familiar with the 1984 film will notice some differences; this production follows the script of the 1998 Broadway musical rather than the film. But Sparrow-Knapp has added her own twist in the configuration of the audience. The stage juts out in a couple of different places, and there will be seating within those juts, offering some audience members an immersive experience. Other seating will be farther away, allowing that portion of the audience to enjoy the whole panorama of the show.

“Come more than one night and you may get very different experiences,” she said.

This is the third YSHS/McKinney production Sparrow-Knapp has directed. Active as a director in local community theater, she’s also worked with some of the student actors in Center Stage and Yellow Springs Theater Company productions. “I love that I get to watch them grow up artistically, and grow in maturity — and also fall back in maturity,” she said, with a laugh.

“Footloose” is an ensemble production, so “everyone has the chance to shine.” But the main roles are challenging, said Sparrow-Knapp, and she’s “asked people to stretch.”

For senior Meredith Rowe, a key challenge has been playing an adult role for the first time. “Emotionally it’s a challenge. I have to put myself in the place of a parent.” Rowe plays Vi in the production, wife of Rev. Shaw, played by Rowe’s friend “Bear” Wright. She and Wright did lots of joint preparation for their roles, Rowe said, and “I always hope that it comes through.”

Wright said the stretch for him in this production has been “going deep.” A veteran student actor, he’s been cast in “more comedic” roles in the past, he said. “There’s not much comic relief in this role,” he added. “I really do like portraying a character who’s troubled.” He described Rev. Shaw as a “villain in some ways … whose own internal struggles” are responsible for his destructive narrow-mindedness.

“I hope everyone can see as deeply into these characters as we’ve been able to see,” Wright said.

Lucas Mulhall, who plays Ren, a Chicago boy stuck in small-town nowhere, said dancing and singing were the “scary bits.” But Sparrow-Knapp assured him that a “strong actor who also sings and dances” was what the part needed, he said. Describing Ren and his struggles, Mulhall slipped out of the third person and into the first. Though he doesn’t have much in common with the character, Mulhall believes he’s been able to work into the role. “I like his character development, how he’s cocky and pretty arrogant at the beginning, and by the end he’s changed.”

And senior Charlotte Walkey described her role as Ariel, daughter of Rev. Shaw and Vi, in terms of emotional range.

“She’s all these different things, and I have to portray them all,” she said. Balancing the many aspects of the production, including learning her lines, learning the music and choreography and working on both group and solo numbers has also stretched her. “I feel like I’m putting my efforts into all directions at once,” she said.

The tech team has its own hurdles in this built-from-scratch production. “The tech team has built everything. They’re doing so much problem-solving,” said Sparrow-Knapp. “It’s been awesome to see them own their own tech.”

According to Eilis Price, the stage manager, “because this is a really large cast, organizing everyone has been a challenge.” But she loves “everything” about the production, she said.

“It’s such a collaborative experience. It’s an emotional workout for the actors, but also for the techies. We’re thinking about what lighting will convey best the emotion an actor needs to show.” She paused. “If it doesn’t sound too hippie, I’d say we have our own supportive emotional journeys. We do as much empathetic work as the actors.”

And that, said Sparrow-Knapp, is a huge reason why theater is so important for young people. “It’s a chance to walk in other shoes for a while. It gives them new perspectives, they connect with all this new material in visceral ways.”

Sparrow-Knapp also underscored how theater brings together many strands and styles of learning. “My curtain speech is that theater in education is where we synthesize learning. It lets kids collaborate. It gives them voice, it gives them power, it gives them identity. It teaches them skills they can use for life. It’s the ultimate PBL,” she said, referring to project-based learning.

Back in the high school gym, the actors were working and reworking a single scene. Mulhall, as Ren, was pacing and tossing a ball, chanting the lines that led into the song “I’m Free.” Still tossing the ball, he grabbed for the next line, and missed. “Go back and get it!” Sparrow-Knapp commanded. Her voice carried the absolute confidence that he could, and would.

“We’re in a tightening process. We want this show to be just a joy romp for everyone who comes to see it,” she said.

Just seven days remained to rehearse toward that end. But she wasn’t concerned.

“A week in theater is like five dog years,” Sparrow-Knapp laughed. “We’ll be ready.”

“Footloose” plays for two weekends: Fridays, March 4 and 11, at 8 p.m.; Saturdays, March 5 and 12, at 8 p.m.; and Sundays, March 6 and 13, at 2 p.m. All performances are held at Mills Lawn School.

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