A unique arts program recently celebrated its fifth year in Omaha. Omaha Performing Arts has partnered with The Broadway Dreams Foundation, a national nonprofit performing arts training program that teaches aspiring actors, singers and dancers how to kick start their careers. BDF provides local performers the opportunity to work with and learn from Broadway professionals and to better understand the musical theatre industry from the audition, through the rehearsal and to the opening night performance. The foundation currently operates in Omaha and six other cities, including Los Angeles, Cooperstown and Philadelphia.
“Studies have shown that kids are better with life skills when they have arts programs,” says Annette Tanner, executive director. “They are better with communication skills, testing and job skills.” The program is a one week intensive immersion for kids who think that stage is the right place for them. Students involved can chose between performing arts intensives, extreme workshops and master classes. They can choose the best classes for themselves like classes that focus on vocal and dance. The program also helps young people network with Broadway professionals, top casting directors, work on their resumes, get new head- shots and have the chance to work in a fully produced Broadway show, often with professional actors who have starred in successful shows. Once the program is completed, the students perform in a stage production. The “Triple Threats” program is an extreme education training exercise that focuses on acting, singing and dancing.
Each area is taught by professionals with backgrounds on Broadway. “It’s so inspiring and rewarding,” Tanner says. “Just last year we had 23 kids go on to Broadway and West End (London) careers. The show is so exceptional.” One of her favorite aspects of the show is that the pro- gram allows students from all economic backgrounds to participate. In 2013, 42 percent of all students participating were either on a full or partial scholarship. To get kids involved they visit high schools and the Omaha Performing Arts Center sends out emails about auditions. Potential participants can send in audition videos which are judged on their presentation and passion. The actual show is amazing, Tanner says. “Any audience member will leave thinking that it was one of the best nights of theater they’ve ever seen,” she says. Former student and intern Kaila Cassling considers herself lucky being a part of the program. She and her sister were initially dancers when they were asked to perform with Broadway Dreams when they made a stop here in Omaha. Afterwards she auditioned and fell in love with all aspects of performing, including singing and writing. “It opened my eyes to the Broad- way world,” she says. “It pushed me to become a singer and an actor.” Following her week long intensive, she has spent three years as an intern for the program.
She now works closer with faculty, learning what goes into the day to day of putting on an event and how pre- production works. “The people they bring in are so different and all of them care so much,” Cassling says about the Broadway Dreams faculty. Many of her teachers offered her letters of recommendation, which ultimately helped her get into college. She also points out that the program does an exceptional job simulating actual Broadway auditions. This year’s show, Take it the Limit, was Saturday, July 26, at the Orpheum. Joan H. Squires with the Omaha Performing Arts and Tanner introduced the show dedicating it to Bob Cassling who helped bring the program to Omaha and create the Cassling Center. They spoke about the importance of arts education and how special the Broadway Dreams program is for the Omaha area. Take it to the Limit featured students performing acts from 15 different Broadway shows. Stomp was the ﬁrst show to have scenes featured and it was a wonderful beginning. Everywhere the audience looked there was something to see and there was an infectious energy that took hold of the audience. What becomes apparent almost immediately is a feeling that these students are both excited and dedicated to perfecting their craft. Directed by Stafford Arima, Stomp was clearly designed to showcase the exceptional talent of the young students. The set was sparse with only a few subway signs, three staircases and a background screen that signaled when the performances where changing to new shows and in many cases the performers would bring out their own props, like chairs, buckets and cell phones. As Stomp came to an end, actors dressed as train conductors came onstage to signal a switch to the production of Aladdin. The minimal set design allowed the audience to focus on the performers.
The show’s real standout performance came from its version of Dreamgirls. Directed by Stafford Arima and Broadway actor Tituss Burgess, who would perform later in the show, and choreographed by Skye Mattox a Tony Award nominee, Dreamgirls got the biggest reaction from the audience. All three girls, Rayquila Durham, Carina Louchley and Kayla McCrary had big strong voices but it never felt like they were competing with each other. Young actor Keem Avraham as James Thunder Early gave an energetic performance. But it was McCrary who ended up with a standing ovation for her performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Another highlight of the evening was student Quentin Earl Darrington’s cover of the John Legend hit “All of Me.” Performed while seven other students did an interpretative dance, it was a surprisingly powerful moment. As was the performance of the Broadway classic The Me Nobody Knows. The compassionate performance of “If I had a Million Dollars” was beautiful and tender. As the show came to a close, Tanner proudly announced that The Me Nobody Knows is heading back to Broadway directed by Stafford Arima and that the kids who were a part of Broadway Dreams will be allowed to audition. The show’s biggest asset was the feeling of love. The audience could sense how much the faculty cared for their students and the fact that they were in awe of them. Tanner and artistic director Nicholas Rodriguez pointed out several times in their ﬁnal speech that the actors only had a week to learn and rehearse for this show. When you consider those facts, it was a remarkably polished show full of admirable performances.