Audiences will not see tightly choreographed jazz and tap numbers, hear upbeat music or see other things common in children and teen musicals when a play with area youths comes to a local theater.
Ciara Bogan, 11, of Ahwatukee, and East Valley children will portray adult characters dealing with loss, forgiveness and other weighty topics in “The Sparrow” Feb. 23-25 and March 2-4 at Limelight Performing Arts, 511 W. Guadalupe Road, Gilbert.
The play, with a cast of 18 youths, is about a girl, Emily Book, who is the only survivor of a school bus accident as a child. She leaves the tiny town where the tragedy occurred, but after many years away she must return in order to graduate high school.
Emily is shy when she shows up, but a biology teacher helps her adjust, as does the head cheerleader, Jenny McGrath, who befriends her.
When Jenny is in danger during a cheerleading stunt at a basketball game, Emily reveals her special powers by saving Jenny’s life. Emily becomes a hero to her classmates, but she still has a dark secret.
While the play touches on some serious subjects, it also has humor and even some “campiness” to it, said director Jamie Bauer-Spano, a freelance artist in theater.
“It’s about Emily trying to find her place in the world,” Bauer-Spano said. “It’s about the town trying to find peace with that tragedy. It’s about the town being able to go on with their lives. It’s about forgiving yourself and forgiving other people. Theater mirrors life.”
Ciara, a fifth-grader at Kyrene del Norte Dual Language Academy, plays a young Emily Book and a boy, Charlie McGuckin, whose sister had been killed in the bus accident.
Ciara said she has been dancing since she was “little” and performed in her first play when she was about 3 or 4 years old.
She said she was nervous initially about acting in the play because she is one of the youngest cast members, but the fellow actors have been supportive.
“They make it easier,” Ciara said. “They’ve been nice to me. They let me sit with them and talk to them. It’s helpful. I like, go home and read over my lines every other night.”
She said she enjoyed playing the character Rizzo in “Grease Jr.” previously.
Besides conveying feelings of loss, grief and forgiveness, the characters in “The Sparrow” also act out another serious matter – bullying.
Ciara said one girl in the play cried after rehearsing a scene that stuck with her.
“She got so into it,” she said. “She got so part of it, she felt as that character.”
“It’s one that will have you on your toes,” she said.
The play, which premiered in Chicago in 2007, has “a lot of surprises,” Bauer-Spano said.
While it tackles some heavy matters, “there’s nothing in this play these kids have not seen on TV or in a play or real life,” she added.
“I think we’re doing it in a tasteful way,” Bauer-Spano said.
She said she and the other adults teaching the youths for the play also have given all the actors a “chance to talk openly” about the content of the script.
Bauer-Spano said all the actors, except for the one playing lead Emily, play multiple characters and have helped shape their actions.
“It’s been a super-collaborative project from the get-go,” she said. “They have really contributed to how we are going to tell the story.”
The young actors have also had to use their imagination in the play when it comes to the set.
They use 12 cubes on the stage as different types of objects to reveal what is happening in the production. The children and teens do not sing but they move to music played in the background that matches the “mood of what’s happening” in the play, Bauer-Spano said.
Choreographer Jordan Donovan-Schager, also director of 3DC, a dance company at Studio 3 Performing Arts Academy, said the actors only perform one dance in unison.
However, they use improvisational movement to portray various emotions and actions, with guidance from her.
“It’s certainly a challenge for me, which is really exciting,” Donovan-Schager said. “I give them more prompts and words and phrases. I pull out things I like. I love working with this age group. They’re awesome. They just jump right in.”
Emma England, owner of Studio 3 Performing Arts Academy and artistic director and board president of Limelight Performing Arts, helped with choreography for “The Sparrow.” Monica Ramirez is the stage manager.
Studio 3 Performing Arts Academy is a business that provides lessons in acting, singing, dance, musical theater and musical instruments at 511 W. Guadalupe Road in Gilbert. Limelight, a nonprofit youth theater, holds its shows rehearsals at Studio 3, but all youths are encouraged to audition and participate in Limelight productions.
To buy tickets and learn more about “The Sparrow” and Limelight: limelight.ticketleap.com/sparrow.