The long pandemic wait is over for arts students at the Firestone Community Learning Center, who will finally perform the first high school musical since spring 2019.
As Akron School for the Arts’ Firestone Theater debuts Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” on Thursday, this year’s seniors get their first chance to perform in their high school musical since they are freshmen.
Leading the school’s cast of 20 students, whose musicals are traditionally highly anticipated each spring, are co-stars Peter Kolodziej as George and Jada Pledger as Dot/Marie. As sophomores two years ago, both were among the cast heartbroken when production of the school’s “A Chorus Line” was halted by the pandemic in March 2020, three weeks before it opened. At the time, Pledger played Judy and Kolodziej portrayed Greg in the iconic dance musical.
That means the last musical Firestone performed for audiences was “Big Fish” in 2019, which Pledger and Kolodziej both starred in as freshmen on the set.
Today, the cast of Firestone brings to life Sondheim’s 1984 musical inspired by French pointillist Georges Seurat’s masterpiece, “A Sunday on the Island of La Grand Jatte.” In the first act set in 1884, Kolodziej plays the obsessive artist George and Pledger plays his longtime mistress Dot, who wants more in their relationship. In the second act, a century later, Kolodziej plays the cynical artist George, the eldest George’s great-grandson, and Pledger plays the younger George’s 98-year-old grandmother, Marie.
From small roles to leading roles in the school musical
Director Mark Zimmerman said that with the long music hiatus from school, a number of students have gone from small roles to leading roles now. The students of the technical team also did not follow the usual progression of theater education during the pandemic, when a number of Firestone plays were presented online.
“What we don’t have is some sort of institutional memory of how everything works,” he said March 30.
Both Pledger and Kolodziej honed their theatrical skills with online theater productions on Firestone last year, as well as performing and directing live plays when in-person theater returned to Firestone this fall. The two seniors said that being leaders in the musical now comes with a lot of expectations.
“It’s honestly a little overwhelming because you think about where you were three years ago, like in first year. You’re a little naive and you just try to see the seniors and see what they’re doing. But now you’re the eldest, so you feel like you have to jump into action without having any preparation at all,” Pledger said. “But it’s also pretty fun. It’s a fun challenge because a lot of students in the underclass really supported us.”
“It’s like an artistic shock,” said Kolodziej, who starred in Weathervane Playhouse’s musical “Kinky Boots” in the fall. “It’s like you’re at one point in your first year as an actor and then you get to your final year and you’re expected to be a lot more developed, but you haven’t had all that experience, really, between classes and learning all these technical things.”
Both actors stress the fun and importance of rebuilding their school’s theater community.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve done despite the weather we’ve had, and I’m excited to see what we can do,” said Pledger, who performed on the vacation in the Weathervane Playhouse Musical. Joseph and the Incredible Dreamcoat Technicolor.”
“Nerves are calmed now that we are here.”
For Kolodziej, it was about arts students re-establishing themselves in their extracurricular activities.
“It’s been a year of a lot of recovery,” he said of his senior year. “I think the music season brings a really strong sense of community to this program. And so it showed us something familiar that we used to experience here, and it feels good again.”
Choose the Sondheim Coin for Firestone musical
This moment has been a long time coming for Zimmerman and his students. The director decided that doing a work by the great Sondheim, who died in November at the age of 91, would be a fulfilling musical challenge for his students.
“Sunday in the Park with George” will also feature a 24-piece student orchestra with a large string section for the first time in years, led by Firestone string teacher Joshua Bowman.
“They sound great. They do a great job,” Zimmerman said.
The director, who is a Sondheim fan, had considered doing Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” for Firestone’s big comeback. But the Rubber City Youth Theater did this show last summer and it wanted to provide a new experience for its students.
They were unfamiliar with the less produced “Sunday in the Park with George”, which they started reading and listening to in class. Zimmerman said the musical always resonated emotionally with him.
“Once we started really working on it, the kids really fell in love with it. It’s really something special, I think,” Zimmerman said.
The show is very different from the many song and dance musicals the school has done in the past. It has choreographed moves but no dance numbers.
“It’s quite cerebral but it’s also very moving. And ultimately it’s a piece that talks about the artist and their art and the relationship between the artist and their art, and how that affects other relationships, human relationships, and how human relationships also affect art,” Zimmerman said.
Returning to musical practice was an important step, the manager said.
“It was quite emotional to come back and hear the kids sing and sing a show that touched me deeply,” Zimmerman said. “Because they embraced the piece so well, they just bring this truthfulness to their performances that I find unusual.”
find inspiration in the musical, the painting, the occasion
Most of the time, he starts the rehearsal by asking the actors what they found out about the show. The cast also learned about Seurat’s painting through art teacher Steve Csejtey, who spoke about his art, how he was an innovator, and what was happening in the art world in 1884 Paris.
In the black box theater where the musical cast rehearses, a print of Seurat’s “A Sunday on the Island of La Grand Jatte” hangs on a whiteboard as a constant reminder of musical inspiration. In this musical, artist George is in charge of his subjects as the story unfolds in the first act, which ends with George placing each character in a painting that replicates the painting of Parisians s’ fun in the park.
This first musical start will remain in the memory of all student-performers, especially seniors.
“It’s really bittersweet, honestly. I think of my classmates who didn’t have that (chance to play), and that makes me more grateful for the whole experience itself. And I’m just happy to be able to pass the torch,” Pledger said.
Art and restoration writer Kerry Clawson can be reached at 330-996-3527 or [email protected]
Musical: “Sunday in the Park with George”
Or: Firestone Theater, 470 Castle Blvd., Akron
When: Opening 7:30 p.m. Friday, until April 16, 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
On the scene: Peter Kolodziej, Jada Pledger, Alix Hernandez, Ali Kirschbaum, Ilona Kitchen, Avery Linn, Jonathan Raber, Maxwell Smith, Elena Varner-Waltz, Jackson Bird, Fiona Coughlin, Jazaiah Curtis, Talia Greene, Austin Prince, Faith Stephenson, Cecilia Bailey, Anna Foltz, Mabel Jennings, Stephen Kraus, Anderson Rambler
In the wings: Stephen Sondheim, composer, lyricist; James Lapine, book; Mark Zimmerman, director; Megan Meyer, musical director; Joshua Bowman, conductor; Emelia Sherin, choreographer; Elynmarie Kazle, production manager; Leanne Bock, Technical Director; Jason Labovitz, Sound Mentor; Rylee Horowitz, stage manager; Sophie Becker, costumes; Brandon Drone, sound; Macy Garver-Hughes, assistant stage manager; Avery Linn, costumes; eM Jay Ross, lights; Mel Searle, decor; Alaina Tennant, props; Frances Whitley, assistant stage manager