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TBA Online: News & Features: July 2018

CMT San Jose Celebrates 50-Year Legacy with Alumni-Choreographers

Wednesday, July 18, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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When people hear that the Children’s Musical Theater in San Jose finds a role for every student who tries out, they have a couple reactions, says Kevin Hauge, who has been the company’s artistic director for more than 20 years.

“They first thing they say is, ‘Oh, that’s very noble,’” he starts. “Then the second thing they probably say is, ‘Well, that show can’t be very good.’”

Kevin Hauge. Photo by Daniel Garcia.

CMT may or may not be noble, but the company, celebrating its 50th year this season, is doing good work. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) just awarded CMT a $10,000 grant – the 11th consecutive NEA award for the company has received— an impressive number for a youth-focused theatre. This continuous support from the prestigious funder reflects the artistic excellence of CMT’s productions and programming choices. It is certainly unusual for a youth company to take on projects such as The Who’s Tommy and Green Day’s American Idiot, and these bold choices have paid off.

“I would definitely have to say the production value is out of this world,” says Joey Dippel. “I think Kevin really sees the potential in the kids and he doesn’t settle—he knows what 110 percent quality could be. He has passion and vision, and it’s so important when someone believes in you.”

Dippel came to CMT as a six-year-old. Another student in his first-grade class was part of the company, and his teacher recommended CMT to Dippel’s mom because he had so much energy. Dippel remembers being taken to the audition by his dad and realizing he had to do a song and dance. He didn’t have anything prepared, but he sang something anyway—he thinks it was “I Wish You a Merry Christmas.” And he ended up with a role in Cinderella.

“I even got one line, and it was maybe five words, but I felt like such a star every time I did it,” Dippel adds.

That was 21 years ago. Now Dippel, a dancer and choreographer living in New York, sometimes comes back to work with CMT. He directed and choreographed Evita, choreographed Tommy, and now, Dippel and four other CMT alumni are returning to jointly choreography the company’s current show, West Side Story, which runs from July 27 to August 5 (Dippel is doing the choreography for the show’s the ballet number, “Somewhere.”)

Another alum, Whitney Jansenn, is choreographing the production’s “Officer Krupke” number. A San Jose resident, Jansenn works as a dance teacher and choreographer. Working on West Side Story is especially poignant for her, as it her last CMT show as a company member. (Jansenn played Anita in that production.)

Enlisting multiple choreographers on a show is an example of CMT’s innovation, Jansenn thinks.

“It’s very unusual and great for kids to work with different choreographers and try out different styles,” she explains. “And it’s hard for people who live in New York to commit for three months, so it’s cool they can come out for a week.”

West Side Story cast members, Tristan Caldwell,  JP Micallef, Kieran Ruf, Noah Jackman, and Jack Bloome. Photo by Daniel Garcia

 Jansenn adds that working with West Side Story’s two casts has been a joy.

“I had two kids who could flip, so I thought, ‘Oh awesome, I can put some flips in there,’” she says. “When I asked them if they had dance training, three or four did, but the rest of them said they just do shows. It blows me away the mentality and drive of these kids and how supportive they are of one another. I’ll teach one cast something and then when the other one comes in, they have pretty much learned it. They know what’s expected, and they can rise to that pretty quickly. I think it’s all due to Kevin—he expects a lot, but he’s kind the way he does it.”

Jack Bloome, who started doing shows with CMT at 11, knows about rising to expectations—Bloome learned to play the guitar for American Idiot and, for his current role as Riff, the leader of the Jets, he learned to dance. “A couple months ago I had two left feet, and now I’m playing one of the lead roles,” adding, “CMT has the right people to take you out of your comfort zone. You walk in the room thinking I’m going to do A, and they say, ‘OK, but here’s C and D.’”

Bloome can’t think of another children’s company that does multiple shows on a revolving stage or produces American Idiot with a cast of 14-to-20 year-olds. He lists his favorite productions as American Idiot, Hairspray, and Rent.

Hauge states that there is no formula for the shows he picks. He prefers doing newer, contemporary works and also chooses shows that allow the kids to learn a range of skills. For instance, when CMT staged Avenue Q, the actors had the opportunity to learn puppetry skills. Sometimes, in the case of West Side Story, Hauge pulls a musical from the American canon. However, Hauge feels the classic musical, although written in the 1950’s, feels disturbingly contemporary.

“It’s so weird now working on this piece dealing with gun violence and gangs and the way women are treated,” he says. “These are hot button issues for young people.”

Hauge shares that he is enjoying having alumni choreograph the show.

“You can imagine how fun it is for us who have been around for many years to see kids who found their own voice capture the attention of a room,” he notes. “And kids in what was their place 10 or 15 years ago looking up at them with their eyes wide open.”

Bloome, who will study musical theater at Point Park University in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, next year, says he’s lucky to be have been working with Hauge the last seven years.

“Kevin is an incredible man and he’s got such a clear vision of what he wants and yet he likes giving us the wheel a little,” he states. “He’s an incredible director, and he’s taught me so much about different acting styles and how to make a person real onstage.”

Working on shows together at CMT has led to closeness, alumni and current students say. Many of his good friends now, Bloome says, were cast members at his first musical at CMT, Seussical. Jansenn shares she now goes to see her CMT friends’ children in productions. Dippel describes CMT alumni as a sort of benevolent mafia of support all around the country.

“CMT was my second family growing up, and I felt very lucky,” he states. “I had 15 of my friends’ moms’ numbers in my phone, and I have lifelong friendships and connections. My first roommate when I moved to New York was from doing that production of Cinderella.”

Emily Wilson writes for print, the web and radio. She also teaches at City College of San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter: @ehw415