Nipomo High School’s new musical focuses on stresses of students

Take a sneak peek at Nipomo students' original musical, 'Reach'

Nipomo and Central Coast New Tech high school students give a sneak peek of "Reach: The Musical," which opens on May 13, 2016.
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Nipomo and Central Coast New Tech high school students give a sneak peek of "Reach: The Musical," which opens on May 13, 2016.

Think of a musical that features predominately high school characters dealing with issues that face high schoolers. You probably thought of “Grease,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” or maybe “High School Musical.”

But can you name more?

That’s the problem many high school drama departments face every year while determining the shows they’ll produce: How do you find shows that deal with issues that are relevant for high school student performers today?

Local playwright Wendy-Marie Martin is looking to change that with her latest work, “Reach: The Musical,” which opens at Nipomo High School on Friday.

Martin and her creative team — director Katie Mack and composer Elisabeth Weidner — have spent the past few weeks in a whirlwind of writing and revising as the student performers nimbly adjust to the changing script.

The play focuses on the life of a high school senior, Alexis (played by Nipomo High School senior Carley Herlihy), as she tries to navigate her last year of high school and decide what she wants to do with her life. She is aided by her internal voices, Yin and Yang (played by Nipomo senior Mandie Richardson and Central Coast New Tech senior Kaylin Stewart).

She’s a strong, smart woman, and I think it’s important to tell that story.

Katie Mack, “Reach: The Musical” director

“(Alexis is) determined, and she’s resilient,” Mack said. “And ultimately, she finally finds some peace and calm internally to know that everything is going to be OK. She’s not going to go hide under a blanket. She’s a strong, smart woman, and I think it’s important to tell that story.”

Martin, the mother of a Nipomo High School senior, said she was inspired to create a quintessential high school musical by the stress she saw her daughter and her classmates going through this year.

“The drama kids are overachievers — they’re in every show, they’re in AP classes, they’re in other clubs like dance company and whatever — so the idea of trying to write a musical about their stress senior year kind of percolated after watching their struggles,” she said.

When she approached the school drama department, Martin intended to write, compose and direct the play herself. That soon became too difficult, she said, so she got approval to bring on a creative team and begin staging the musical as she was still writing it.

Most high schools put on shows that have been in common rotation for years or even decades (think “Our Town” or “Oklahoma!”). The scripts, characters and sometimes even the staging for those shows have been set for years, with very little room for interpretation.

With “Reach,” everything has been ephemeral, Martin said, with the show being built as the student performers rehearse.

The kids auditioned for the play with only a two-inch-long synopsis, plus a list of character descriptions, she said.

“They didn’t even know what it meant to get a role at that point, because they couldn’t read a script — there wasn’t one — and so they don’t know if it’s a big role, a little role,” she said. “They auditioned for a show that didn’t exist yet.”

Martin wrote the first and second acts between auditions and the first scheduled rehearsal, and a week later, Weidner had already composed and taught the students the first song from the show.

“There are many styles (in it),” Weidner said of the show’s music. “Even just in introducing all of the clubs that Alexis tries out alone. Each one is like a minute long, and each one is tailored to fit the style of the club. Like FFA is very cowboy sounding, and there’s a robotics club that is all, like, robot-y sounding. There’s a lot of little styles throughout it.”

Though the script and songs are completed and ready for opening night Friday, Martin said the show will likely evolve depending on the results of this run.

“The second production of this might be entirely different than this first production, depending on what we want to do with it,” Martin said. “And that’s exciting.”

“Reach: The Musical” has been entirely funded by private donations. The donors are: Community Health Centers; Carl Frederiksen; Donna and Randy Johnson; Nipomo Area Reacreation Association Inc.; Nipomo High School Boosters; Sheila Patterson; Brenda Radtke; RyLo Media Design; Arlene Sackman and Randal Sumabat and Nick Pressure.

Launching an all-new musical is a demanding endeavor for anyone, but even more so at the high school level.

“It’s 20 minutes before rehearsal and I’m getting text messages, you know: ‘I can’t be in the show anymore,’ ‘I’m going to be late,’ ‘I can’t be at rehearsal until Wednesday,’ ‘My grades are down, so I can’t do it until they go back up,’ ” Mack said last week as the group was preparing for its last rehearsal before going into tech week — that’s when all of the technical elements of the production, such as lighting, microphones and costumes, are added, leading up to opening night.

“Yeah, this is nerve-wracking — we are getting down to the wire, but it’s all for the art and for putting on this really cool show,” she said.

At the last rehearsal, the creative team split up between two rooms on the Nipomo campus to work on two very different musical numbers.

In the school’s cafeteria and performance hall, practice focused on a psuedo rock number titled “Deadlines” where a stone-faced ensemble sang, “Just got to get through senior year, so my future will appear,” while stomping across the stage carrying books.

In the dance room across campus, the boys of the cast pretended to be plastic surgery patients for a goofy number called “Nip and Tuck,” featuring New Tech junior Ross Kesselring as Alexis’ surgeon uncle, Dr. Payne (Alexis was considering if she wants to follow in her uncle’s footsteps and become a plastic surgeon).

Between songs, the cast members were typical high school students, laughing at a funny move the choreographer made or standing with friends in the wings and whispering until an adult told them to stop.

Even though working with high schoolers poses its own set of challenges, Mack and Martin said the students involved in the show have been incredibly resilient throughout the production, adjusting to script and musical changes and even changes in casting with little to no complaints.

“A couple of them have had to give up parts that they love because there were conflicts, but they just said, ‘Whatever is best for the show,’ ” Martin said. “It’s just amazing for me to see that with that young of actors.”

If you go

“Reach: The Musical” runs from May 13-22 in Olympic Hall at Nipomo High School, with performances at 2 p.m. on May 14 and 22, and 7 p.m. on May 13, 14, 20 and 22. Tickets are $10 for students and seniors, $12 for adults, and can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com/event/2538149 or by emailing info@reachthemusical.com.