The artists of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's Summer Musical Theater Intensive, ages 10 to 23, don't expect you to understand. They know that you think that "young artists" is a euphemism for "kids who sing and dance" with the emphasis on "kids." They know you expect their annual performance on The Rep's main stage to be a glorified school musical, something charmingly raw at best. They know all this, and they relish it.
"I like proving adults wrong," said Taylor Quick, 16, a junior at Little Rock Christian, a week before SMTI's "Review the Revue" debuted March 2 at The Rep. "It's the best feeling."
"I feel like they doubt our capability," added Mary Katelin Ward, 16, a junior at North Little Rock West High School, inspiring murmurs of affirmation from cast mates.
"I have to explain to family or friends who come for the first time, 'This is a bigger deal than it seems,' " said Stephanie Holiman, 16, a Central High junior. "Afterwards, they're always like, 'Are you kidding me, kids can do that?' "
At the preview performance of "Review the Revue," among the things these 65 kids could do that others probably cannot: Breathe life into "Brown-Eyed Girl" and barbershop quartets with sweet, pure vocal harmonies (that one member of the quartet has perfect pitch didn't hurt). Credibly pay tribute to Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" and Michael Jackson's "Thriller," perhaps the most theatrical pop songs of the last 30 years, without devolving into parody. And, above all, execute steps and notes and blocking near flawlessly while still exuding personality. The kids and teen-agers and young adults that make up the production all retain their youth — they're sometimes goofy and sometimes awkward — while still hitting their marks. There are no stage automatons among this group.
"The program's taken off," Nicole Capri, director of SMTI and resident director and director of education at The Rep, said before the preview. "Because motivated kids really like to be thrown a challenge. They're on fire to see if they can pull it off."
"Review the Revue," as the title suggests, looks back at the highlights of the program's five years of performances. At its most basic level, it's a story of SMTI's quick success. The first auditions for the summer training program drew 150 kids. This year's brought out around 500, out of which roughly 80 were selected. The first year, the program's two divisions — ages 10 to 15 and ages 16 to 23 — staged spare versions of "Schoolhouse Rock" and "Godspell," respectively. Now, as it has been since year two, SMTI is on the main stage with perhaps The Rep's most elaborately costumed production.
Last year, SMTI polled the audience on its favorite numbers from past productions, which after the first year have taken on a theme, such as holiday traditions, Hollywood's love affair with Broadway and history through the lens of music. All the productions, therefore, have felt like jukebox musicals of musical and theatrical history, none more so than this year's greatest hits collection, which mashes together everything from "Annie Get Your Gun" to "South Pacific" to "Chicago" to "Wicked" to Leiber and Stoller's "I'm a Woman" to MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This."
Between the song and dance numbers in "Review the Revue," a handful of the young performers deliver monologues that look back at their time in the program. In the first act, Mary Katelin Moore, one of the few performers who's been in SMTI since it began, told the audience she recently learned that she's set a record for performing in more shows at The Rep than anyone else under the age of 20.
"I have the best support system that anyone in this business could ever hope to have," she said. "I love this stage. I've mopped this stage. I've bled on this stage. And I've sung my heart out on this stage. It's a part of me."
Capri talks often about how close-knit the actors are and how important it is for SMTI to provide a safe environment in which kids can thrive. But, ultimately, she said, the primary focus is building talent.
"First and foremost, our goal has to be that we want to create a training program where kids are going off to college or out into the professional world to people who're asking, 'What's in the water in Little Rock, Arkansas?' "
After just five years, Capri's alumni include a member of the Joffrey Ballet in New York who recently danced the lead in "The Nutcracker," an actress who recently toured with a national production of "Annie," an "American Idol" contestant who made it to Hollywood week, and a number of actors and vocalists in college programs across the country. Moreover, Capri said SMTI is influencing the types of shows The Rep decides to stage. "A Christmas Story" was filled with SMTI kids. The cast of "Hairspray," which debuts at The Rep on April 8, is full of SMTI members and alumni.
Caroline McCormick, a 17-year-old senior at Mount Saint Mary Academy and another five-year vet of SMTI, ascribes the program's success to the demands it puts on young performers.
"We're not just a bunch of kids who're coming here because we have nothing else to do. We're treated like equity actors. We have to be here on time. We have to remember our choreography. That's why we're able to make that transition. When we get out in the professional world, we know what's expected of us."
For those interested in being a part of the program, auditions are coming up April 1-2 at Wildwood Park for the Arts (The Rep will be undergoing renovations), with callbacks on April 3. Call 378-0405 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to make an appointment.
Tuition to the program is $400 with a $15 costume fee. Scholarships are available. Capri said SMTI has never turned away a kid because he or she couldn't afford it. In fact, in five years, the program has given away over $35,000 in scholarships.
Capri said the next production is going to be about the '80s. "We could call it something like, "We Weren't Born Yet," she joked.
"Review the Revue" continues at The Rep with performances at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday.