Orange County School of the Arts

Performing with the Pros with Liz Callaway

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Silhouettes move against a red background. A discordant shriek echoes and they all crouch down. The spotlight flashes on and instead of students on a stage, they are the villagers on Fleet Street, singing about the demonic barber Sweeney Todd.

Then Liz Callaway, a Tony nominee and Emmy Award-winning actress and singer, heads up on stage and gives students a thumbs-up. What seems like an archetypal high school theatre production is suddenly so much more. It’s OCSA’s “Performing with the Pros,” an annual show in which Musical Theatre students perform with a professional in the industry.

After director Karen Rymar gives instructions to the production and design crew, Callaway takes the stage by herself. She recreatesa song from Merrily We Roll Along,the Sondheim show in which she made her Broadway debut. Her voice touches thesoul, familiar to anyone who’s watched “Anastasia”,”Lion King II: Simba’s Pride”, “The Swan Princess” and “Aladdin: The Return of Jafar”.

The cast of 38 steps on stage with Ms. Callaway and a chorus of voices blossoms in the Margaret A. Webb Theater. After the song, she immediately hugs them, diving into her notes on how to improve. The students are all ears.

Jared Machado, a sophomore, shares how Ms. Callaway gave suggestions for the Sweeney Todd number—about how to properly enunciate words while still having intensity in the body and sound.

“She’s been so great to us,” says Machado. “The way she gives us notes it is so genuine and you can tell she wants to help us and that she appreciates us very much. She’s amazing—how she’s giving back to us.”

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Before the show, Ms. Callaway tells the cast an expression she uses: “Nothing to prove, only to share.” At a school bursting with talent, it’s crucial to remember her advice to find your own voice—both figuratively and literally. Despite busy schedules, the energy is always alive, inspiring improvised staging and spontaneous dance parties.

“Even though I think I’m here to work with them and to inspire the kids, I actually find myself being inspired by them,” says Ms. Callaway. “The level of talent is tremendous. I’m having a ball.”

Nathan Levy, a Musical Theatre sophomore, says that working with a professional really pushes students to live up to what they’ve been taught—not only to always stay true to the music and to the story, but also to elevate themselves beyond high school theatre.

“You always have to act professional in any rehearsal for any type of show but especially with ‘Performing with the Pros’,” says Levy. “You want to make sure the Pro knows OCSA is a place with professional students who care about what they do.”

With powerful vocals filling the house and a high-energy dance number, it’s clear that these are performers dedicated to their passion. The sight is nothing less than awe-inspiring, for both the audience and Ms. Callaway.

“It’s fun to see people at the beginning of their careers. They’ve got their lives ahead of them. They’re so excited to soak up all the knowledge they can,” says Ms. Callaway. “It’s a reminder that there are so many possibilities. There are so many adventures you can have regardless of how old you are. And just to see that excitement and passion, and to see how they support each other… I know they all have a bright future.”

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Photo Credit to Cheryl Walsh AltSenior.com

—Cassandra Hsiao

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