How do you get a guy with national awards to his name excited about a local production? For starters, give him a wealth of talent and stick him in a picturesque setting.
“This group is different than any other group in Mobile,” Brandon Caten said. “I’ve done Joe Jefferson Players, Chickasaw Civic Theatre, Sunny Side Theater, Mobile Opera, a church in Mobile. I’ve done everything, and when I came over to ESRT I realized these kids are truly a step above.”
Those youngsters are in the 100-plus member cast of Eastern Shore Repertory Theatre’s production of “Newsies.” Scheduled for May 3-5 on a stage in Fairhope’s Henry George Park, the 7:30 p.m. start nearly guarantees a live sunset backdrop for the bluff-top perch on Mobile Bay’s Eastern Shore.
Now serving as ESRT’s musical director, Caten’s name is likely familiar to Lagniappe readers through the annual Nappie Awards. He was a finalist as Best Actor for readers’ choice honors in 2013, won it in ‘14 and ’15 and was in the final six for ‘16.
Caten also operates his own vocal studio in Mobile and has a lengthy background in musical direction at Sunny Side. In January 2017, he brought his acting chops across the bay to audition for ESRT’s “The Little Mermaid.”
“I walked in with my resume and my head shot, being the professional that I am,” Caten laughed. “[ESRT Artistic Director] Erin [Langley] looked at me as I handed her the resume and she said, ‘Oh, you’re a music director.’”
Caten was cast. Halfway through rehearsals, Langley had a proposition.
“She told me they didn’t have it in the budget for a music director but would I be interested in working with the kids and seeing how it goes. I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Caten recalled.
On through “Little Mermaid,” Caten expanded his base of contacts when ESRT staged “Heathers: The Musical.” Marty Johnson, education director of the nationally prominent iTheatrics organization in New York, was brought down to helm the production. Caten was musical director. They led the kids to success with only 40 hours and one week of preparation.
Caten’s charges really shone at the 2018 Junior Theatre Festival Atlanta in January. In the gathering of 6,000-plus students and educators from 130 musical theater groups representing 30 states, the District of Columbia, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, ESRT pulled in an award for Outstanding Production.
The new ESRT show was inspired by an 1899 newsboy strike in New York City against the exploitative child labor practices of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Despite violent tactics by the publishers, the kids stuck it out.
With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman and a book by Harvey Fierstein, the Broadway production won Tony Awards for Choreography and Music and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music.
“This is the first time in the area ‘Newsies’ is being performed and we’re the first non-professional in the state to do this. Red Mountain in Birmingham performed it but I consider them professional because they use equity actors,” Caten said.
Admittedly biased, the musical director feels his inkstained locals are far from wretched. He called the high schoolers playing Jack and Katherine “amazing” and said Chelsea Seitz’s portrayal of Medda is especially impressive.
“She’s a scene stealer, an absolute joy to watch on stage from the moment she opens her mouth and sings and just the little bit she acts is just great. She’s a force to be reckoned with and why she’s not on bigger stages I don’t know,” Caten said.
The musical director estimates the show has “30 to 40” numbers. Despite just eight true music rehearsals, he’s confident.
“I’ve been so proud to hear them sing, from two-part to eight-part harmony. Their retention is remarkable. Some take voice with me privately and others take voice from other teachers so they all put in the extra work,” Caten enthused.
Amid their proliferate and professional video spots, it is obvious detailed quality is a priority. Even Jana Perry’s handmade costumes, from hats to bags to footwear, appear remarkably more period specific than is common in community theater.
The last year has heightened ESRT’s fortunes and Caten’s future. He’s gained an Eastern Shore studio, but lost 90 minutes daily on commutes.
“I’m thinking about moving over to Fairhope this summer. It’s great, the people are wonderful. It’s laid back,” Caten mused.
Tickets for ”Newsies” run $15 to $32 and are available at easternshorerep.org. For more information, call 251-301-2371.