Lights on and shining bright at Palumbo

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Now the school’s second school musical has come to a close, the students and teachers are excited about being part of future acts

Photo by M. Asli Dukan

By Bill Gelman

Imagine trying to start a high school theater program with one key component missing — lighting.

Prior to putting on its first spring production last year, it was a scenario the teachers and students at The Academy at Palumbo faced.

“We work in a very old building with a very classic old-school auditorium,” Anissa Weinraub, the school’s artistic director, said. “For last year’s musical we didn’t have lights until a few weeks before the production.”

“Little Shop of Horrors” was the first show the students put on at that old building located on the 1100 block of Catharine Street. Over the weekend, many of those same students wrapped another Palumbo show, “Urinetown,” with the actors, pit band, crew and audio/lights technicians all being current students.

The program is growing to the point in which students are making a lasting impression outside of the school auditorium. Junior Macksud Yillah, who played Bobby Strong, one of the lead roles in “Urinetown” recently won regionals in the National Shakespeare Competition, earning him a trip to the National Shakespeare Festival in New York City where he will perform at the Lincoln Center. The majority of students in the Philadelphia regional competition were from private schools or the surrounding suburbs.

“It is a major victory to have someone from the Philadelphia public schools represent our region,” Weinraub said.

Yillah is excited about the opportunity.

“This is a new experience for me. Something I’m really looking forward to. It will be nice to see other kids from all over the country,” he said. “I’m excited to be able to perform at Lincoln Center, in front of a large audience.”

While his early success may make him seem like a child prodigy, he has only been acting for the past two years.

“I’m a much stronger performer now, and working with people has gotten simpler,” he said. “I’ve learned to appreciate a family and to receive and give support to my classmates.”

The cast and crew for “Urinetown” consisted of freshmen up to seniors. Some like Yillah handled the leading role while others like freshman Lola Hodgins, gained a different perspective on theater. “I’ve been in shows before, but I’ve never been in one so unique. Doing a satire is so much fun,” she said.

Sophomore Keyon Mosley was the lead pianist.

“Playing music for this show is fun and rigorous. It shows the mission of Palumbo in a different light — not just in the classroom, but in the arts,” he said.

Many of the advanced theater students are currently working on creating an original musical through the school’s partnership with the Wilma Theater. The group will be performing an original show at the Wilma in early May. Many of the same students from this week’s musical are part of this special project. The students in theater class are working with original artists from the Wilma.

“The really cool thing about Philadelphia is that it’s a thriving center of devised theater,” Weinraub said.

Like a stage production, the Palumbo team took several steps to get the program up and running, including a $14,000 Teacher-Leader Collaborative Grant it received last year. Jim Jordan, music director, Monica Wilbur, vocal director, Alison Marzouli, choreographer and art department, Christian Pedone, set designer, and Kristen Arrivello, art department, are other staff members who have helped get the program up and running. Principal Kiana Thompson also continues to provide support.

Besides applause-worthy performances, Weinraub is hoping each of her students uses this experience as his or her opening act as the foundation to future success.

“I hope that they are able to feel that their voice matters,” she said. “Express who they are, what they believe and do so with confidence.”

Senior Nguyen Dang, who played the lead role of Officer Lockstock in the recent play, is one of those students who used to be shy, but will soon be graduating with a much more confident outlook on life.

“Like teachers have said, they never had heard me say a word — they didn’t even know the sound of my voice. And now, stepping out of my comfort zone has helped me find my passion and my voice,” Dang said.

E’lexis Morgan, a senior stage manager, has enjoyed being part of the growth since his freshman year.

“I’ve watched this theater department grow from the ground up since I was a freshman. And, through my work here, I’ve grown up at the same time,” Morgan said.