Center Stage Performing Arts is getting ready to put on its final three performances of the classic musical Fame, based on the movie of the same name from 1980.
Center Stage is run by Mei-Wan Chai, along with her daughters Gina Chai Harris, Kristie Chai O’Leary, and Brianna Chai. Although the youth theater company is largely private, it does get some financial support from The City of Milpitas.
The show’s teenage performers, who come not only from Milpitas, but San Jose, Fremont, and even Pleasanton, are in the midst of intensive rehearsals to make their production as impactful as possible. But for them, doing Fame is as much about entertaining the audience as it is about exploring themselves and their art on a deeply personal level, while bonding with each other as something of a second family…
Anevay Millich, who plays Carmen Diaz in the show, said, “I definitely do find myself within my character, but at the same time, my character is also within me. I find playing her definitely very relatable. She wants to put her name in lights. She wants to make it big. I mean, whose dream isn’t it to make it big and be successful? She likes to perform, and dance and act — she does it all.”
Speaking on the show’s emotional impact, performer Abbe Pingol said, “It’s definitely a roller coaster of emotions.” He went on to explain that whereas the opening number is upbeat and happy, the middle is “morbid and dark and sad.” Then: “At the final musical number, there’s a twist; that just brings it back to the beginning; it gets upbeat and happy [again].”
The students also commented on how part of Fame’s endurance is its truthfulness about the things that teenagers actually go through in real life. Cast member Logan Hernandez-Baker pointed out how one character has a reading problem, and others are dealing with love: “Trying to kind of find out what really love is, and how to deal with it. Kind of awkward phases.”
Christian Loanzon added, “Usually media and literature and stuff like that doesn’t typically portray high school troubles too well. I think Fame’s a little different in that it does portray some struggles that some teenagers who are just growing up, starting the first step of independence from their parents.” In reference to the characters attending the show’s performing arts high school (New York’s legendary High School of Performing Arts), he added, “These are the most talented performers in the area, but a lot of them, their parents are not impressed. Sometimes the conflict between a high-schooler and a parent can be a little complex.”
When the cast members were asked how many of them wanted to pursue performing arts careers in the future, about half of them raised their hands.
Cameron Bradford, who’s been active with the company for years as a leading man, said, “I’ve been performing here for a while now. I like the aspect of putting on a show for someone, giving them a form of entertainment, whether that’s through acting or singing or dancing — whatever, you know, floats their boat. And just like seeing their faces when they come out and greet us after the show. Everybody — well, most of the people — looking very happy. Happy that they came to see the show. They came out, they loved it, and hopefully they’ll come back to see more.”
Cameron’s siblings Natalie and Tim are also performing in Fame. In regard to what it’s like doing a show alongside her two brothers, Natalie Bradford said, “Growing up, it was kind of hard watching my brothers — especially my older brother [Cameron] — always getting the leads. There’d be so many talented girls, not necessarily getting the lead. As we’ve gotten older, it’s changed. There’s different opportunities. I definitely enjoy being on stage, whether it’s ensemble or it’s a lead.”
Younger brother Tim Bradford commented on his own unique connection to the art of performing: “It motivates me to be better, if I have people watch me, that I know. And just seeing them, like, hug you, and see you from the audience, just gives me some hope, or some appreciation per se…”
Sometimes, though, by design, a negative reaction from the audience can actually be a net positive one. Jocee Ang, who plays Iris Kelly, described her character as “a prima ballerina, that kind of girl.” Accordingly, “When I read the script, I imagined her to have a kind of catty attitude. So I gave her an accent. I don’t know what it is — it’s like New Jersey? New York? It’s one of those.”
After Jocee’s brother saw the show, he said he hated her character, which was the perfect compliment, since that was exactly the reaction she had hoped for.
Phoenix LaFreniere commented on the joys of more straightforward audience reactions: “If I say something and the audience laughs, that makes me so happy, and it makes me want to push harder to make the jokes funnier. And it inspires me to go through the show.”
Megan Manalad echoed that sentiment, saying, “There have been multiple times where maybe I’ve smiled or looked directly at a person [in the audience], and it really makes me happy, because sometimes I make that person smile, and I think, ‘Oh my God, they’re enjoying the show.’ And I think that’s what really pushes me on to keep performing.”
Which is not to say the process is without its bumps. Stage fright is actually common among the cast members.
Francesca Lazaro said, “I always get stage fright. It’s ironic, ‘cause I’ve always been performing. But there’s always that sense of like…they always say, ‘You’re gonna do great.’ But you always get the sense of, Will the audience enjoy it? That’s what makes me nervous. Not for me to mess up. But will the audience enjoy it? ‘Cause that’s always what we want to prioritize.”
Madison Moreno added, “When I get stage fright, it’s like ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to go onstage.’ I’ve had people push me onstage…”
Bumps and all, Gina Chai Harris, Center Stage’s Associate Director, thinks the experience of performing is invaluable to these teenagers’ personal growth: “Art in general is good for the kids. It teaches them a lot of life lessons. As they grow up and become adults and into their careers, I think it’s really good. This is one of those mediums where you can actually go on stage and talk and sing and dance. I mean, you’re acting, right? You can apply that to everyday life.” She even applies her artistic background to her own job, selling booze. “How you portray yourself. The professionalism. The discipline. The teamwork. Time management…But I also want them to take away memories, just good times, and a good feeling about themselves.”
Cast member Mikaila Parrish seconded that notion: “We’ve become family. I feel like people don’t understand why we become so close. I don’t understand how we become so close. We’re with each other during rehearsals. People are here to lift you up when you’re feeling down. It becomes like…For me, these people are my second family.”
“I would never smile,” Madison added. “And I was so shy. I remember my mom pushed me into auditions here. I remember Mei-Wan telling me to smile. And after that, I can’t stop smiling.”
The level of personal experience offered by Center Stage transcends whatever the school may have to offer in terms of prestige. Logan had some friends try to downplay her participation with Center Stage, but the way she put it, “Even though we might not have the best stage in the world, we might not have a lot of money, I know that we all put so much effort into this, because this is something that we love so much, that we work toward it as much as we can. I still see it as the highest thing ever.”
Fame hits the stage at The Milpitas Community Center (457 E Calaveras Blvd.) this Friday, August 3, at 7PM, and this Saturday, August 4, at 2:30PM and 7PM.
Don’t miss it.
(And you can learn more about Center Stage Performing Arts here: http://www.centerstagepa.org/)