Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Theater feature: Hopes high for world premiere 'Academy' at the Maltz

A scene from Academy, which opens Thursday at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.

By Hap Erstein

The Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s artistic director,‭ ‬Andrew Kato,‭ ‬has had some major successes in his five years in the job,‭ ‬assembling impressive talent‭ ‬--‭ ‬onstage and off‭ ‬--‭ ‬for such well-received existing musicals as‭ ‬The Boy Friend,‭ ‬Barnum and‭ ‬Anything Goes.‭
But what he really wants to become known for is directing and producing new work.

‭“‬When I started here as artistic director,‭ ‬it was clear that the mission needed to be broad-based theater,‭” ‬says Kato,‭ ‬who grew up in Jupiter and used to wait tables at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre,‭ ‬on the site of what turned into the Maltz.‭ “‬My dream has been to have a regional theater that is introducing new work.‭ ‬But there was a bit of an unknown whether people wanted this.‭”

To test the waters,‭ ‬Kato created a program in‭ ‬2008‭ ‬of concert performances of new musicals in development.‭ “‬And to our joy,‭ ‬people responded.‭ ‬I think people got excited by what producing new work meant for our community.‭”

One of those musicals,‭ ‬Academy,‭ ‬with music,‭ ‬lyrics and script by Kato’s childhood friend John Mercurio,‭ ‬now returns to the Maltz for its world premiere,‭ ‬opening Thursday evening.‭

The show,‭ ‬about a Faustian wager at a boy’s prep school,‭ ‬where two seniors make a casual bet on whether they can influence an unsuspecting freshman to break a few school rules in order to succeed.

Kato,‭ ‬who makes his mainstage subscription series directing debut at the Maltz with‭ ‬Academy,‭ ‬came up with the idea for the musical at,‭ ‬of all things,‭ ‬an a cappella workshop in New Jersey.

‭“‬I saw a group of boys perform Michael Jackson’s‭ ‬‘Thriller,‭’ ‬” he recalls.‭ “‬What I was struck by was the camaraderie and the energy that they brought to it,‭ ‬as well as the a cappella sound.‭ ‬I remember telling John about it,‭ ‬saying,‭ ‘‬I think there’s a prep school musical here somewhere.‭’ ‬And this was way before‭ ‬‘Spring Awakening.‭’‬ There is such great material in a coming-of-age story of boys of privilege,‭ ‬and even just all those universal things that go along with the high school years.‭”

It was easy to persuade Mercurio of the idea,‭ ‬for he could relate it to his days at Jupiter’s upscale private Benjamin School.‭ “‬There was tremendous pressure there,‭” ‬he remembers.‭ “‬There were only‭ ‬40‭ ‬people in my graduating class.‭ ‬You knew everybody and what grades they got.‭ ‬Everyone knew your business.‭ ‬You felt this competition.

‭“‬I feel like everyone identifies,‭ ‬regardless of where you went,‭ ‬with those years and the pressure of trying to accomplish and to move on to higher education.‭”

The show was so well-received in concert two years ago that Mercurio submitted Academy to the New York Musical Theatre Festival‭ (‬NYMF‭)‬,‭ ‬an influential annual event that helped spawn such musicals as‭ ‬Altar Boyz and‭ ‬Next to Normal.‭ ‬Of the hundreds of shows submitted,‭ ‬Academy‭ ‬became one of only‭ ‬13‭ ‬accepted for presentation.

There it not only received a very encouraging review from‭ ‬The New York Times,‭ ‬but festival awards for the show’s writing and ensemble performance.‭ ‬Most startling of all,‭ ‬it won the Daegu International Musical Festival Production Award,‭ ‬which included an all-expenses-paid trip to South Korea for the cast and creative team to present‭ ‬Academy over there.

Mercurio concedes that he had some doubt about how the show would be received in Korea.‭ “‬Certainly a little bit,‭ ‬but it did feel at its core,‭ ‬the questions of achievement and academic excellence,‭ ‬things that an Asian culture could relate to,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬The idea of competition and needing to be the best at something.‭” ‬And‭ ‬Academy‭ ‬emerged from that festival named the best musical of‭ ‬24‭ ‬in competition.

Kato acknowledges that those awards have definitely helped persuade his board of directors to take a risk on a full production of‭ ‬Academy.‭ ‬Ticket buyers are still wary of an unknown show,‭ ‬but regardless of the box office totals,‭ ‬Kato already feels like a winner.‭ “‬What it has done for the Maltz Jupiter Theatre,‭ ‬getting the name out not only nationally,‭ ‬but internationally,‭ ‬is a sense of tremendous pride,‭ ‬not only for the board,‭ ‬but even more‭ ‬so for the staff.‭ ‬Everyone’s excited.‭”

Ahead for the show is a production at the Aurora Theatre,‭ ‬just outside of Atlanta,‭ ‬arranged after that company saw‭ ‬Academy at NYMF.‭ ‬Beyond that,‭ ‬Mercurio is trying to be realistic about his expectations.‭ “‬To me,‭ ‬success means having the opportunity to continue doing my work.‭ ‬In the last two years,‭ ‬that’s beginning to happen and it feels pretty great,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬Having a Broadway hit is just not a realistic thing anymore,‭ ‬just because of the economics involved.‭”

Still,‭ ‬the good news keeps coming for‭ ‬Academy.‭ ‬The production here has received a National Endowment for the Arts grant of‭ ‬$34,000‭ ‬--‭ ‬roughly one-tenth of the budget‭ ‬--‭ ‬a first for the Maltz.

And Kato is keeping his fingers crossed about more opportunities to do what he loves.‭ “‬I think if things go well for‭ ‬‘Academy,‭’‬ we can certainly look forward to more new work here.‭ ‬This has been such a good experience that I’d like to see that happen again,‭” ‬he beams.‭ “‬We‭ ‬are‭ ‬on a good trajectory right now and I’d like to see that continue.‭”

ACADEMY,‭ ‬Maltz Jupiter Theatre,‭ ‬1001‭ ‬E.‭ ‬Indiantown Road,‭ ‬Jupiter‭; ‬Dec.‭ ‬9-19.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$43-$60.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬575-2223.

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