From left to right: Cameron James, Amiyah Nelson, Nicholas May, Robin Robles, and Rhaelin Greene in “21 Chump Street: The Musical.” (Allison Bush/Spinning Tree)
It’s almost become a Covid cliché: if a business or organization wanted to weather the pandemic, the only path was to “pivot.” Or, in the case of Spinning Tree Theatre, to “reimagine”—and find new ways not just to boost audiences, but to broaden opportunities for the next generation.
Founded in 2010, with a reputation built on high-quality productions featuring some of Kansas City’s finest (primarily adult) performers, Spinning Tree has redefined its mission for the current and future seasons: enabling “young artists—with disabilities and without disabilities—to collaborate with professional artists in creating, rehearsing, and performing plays and musicals.”
The latest offering, a double-feature showcase of promising young talent, is a perfect example of this new mission in motion. Two short pieces—a world premiere by a Kansas City playwright, and a Kansas City premiere from a world-famous artist—offer a glimpse of what already is, and what could be.
“Icarus Flew,” by Ellie Freeman, is itself a reimagining of its title myth. A trio of actors (Claude Brown, Cameron James, and Aubrey May) embodies Icarus through different senses, challenging the notion that anyone should be known or judged for only one aspect or action (in Icarus’s case, flying too close to the sun). Freeman first workshopped the piece last year at Spinning Tree’s new Young Playwrights & Directors Lab, and then collaborated with established actor/writer/director Vanessa Severo, who also directs this debut full production. With original, onstage music by violinist Jonathan Schriock and dramatic lighting transitions by Rachael Honnold, “Icarus Flew” is an elegant work of sight and sound, with a satisfying oomph at the end.
The second half of the double bill is, well, also the work of an up-and-coming artist. Lin-Manuel Miranda had only one hit Broadway show and one Tony Award on his resume when he wrote “21 Chump Street: The Musical,” which debuted in 2014 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It’s based on a real “This American Life” radio story, in which a high-school student falls in love with an undercover cop, and is ultimately (spoiler alert) arrested for selling drugs to the officer in an attempt to impress her.
You can find that production on YouTube—but what you’ll see here is every bit as good. With tight direction (essential for a 15-minute show) by Cynthia Hardeman and Michael Grayman-Parkhurst, choreography by Kenny Personett, and a robust six-piece band directed by Pamela Baskin-Watson, this mini-musical punches way above its weight.
As the swooning honor student and his undercover-cop crush, Robin Robles and Amiyah Nelson are (musical) note-worthy. Robles’ performance rivals that of Anthony Ramos, who originated the role at BAM before going on to star in “Hamilton” on Broadway and the film version of Miranda’s “In the Heights.” (Indeed, Miranda was writing “Hamilton” at the same time, and some of the refrains here sound very familiar.) Rhaelin Greene, Cameron James, and Nicholas May provide choreographed comic relief as a trio of goofy classmates, and Aubrey May and Sophia Ramos seamlessly share the role of the narrator.
The talent may be young, but the theatre they make is not; both works entertain while confronting difficult ideas (and Spinning Tree officially recommends the performance for ages 13 and up).
Taken together, the pieces are a testimony to what’s possible when raw talent is shaped by valuable experience, and the chance to work with the experienced. All told, the performances clock in at about 45 minutes—which seems short. But perhaps wanting more is the point. It’s a reminder that these young artists, like Spinning Tree’s reimagined mission, are only getting started.
So just imagine what comes next.
“Icarus Flew” and “21 Chump Street: The Musical,” a double-feature production of Spinning Tree Theatre, runs through May 8 at the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center, 8788 Metcalf Ave., in Overland Park. For more information, visit spinningtreetheatre.com.