Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Green Bay school's original show taps drama

‘The Book of Empty Pages'

GREEN BAY, Wis. - Dead silence hangs. It is the second song into a new, original high school musical, and every family’s fear is being played out. The listening is intense.

A gifted son has celebrated college graduation in a joyous and boozy party and then has headed home in a car with three friends.

The son now sings to himself, on a stretcher, paralyzed for life because of a crash.

This is quite a theatrical wallop.

The drama keeps on coming in “The Book of Empty Pages,” which was given its world premiere presentation Friday night in Marsch Family Auditorium of Green Bay Southwest High School with its author, Brandon M. Rockstroh, conducting. Four performances remain.

There are high school musicals, and then there is one put together like a gigantic puzzle by scores of people to help celebrate the school’s 50 years of musicals. The show has a cast and orchestra topping 60, with a few score more in crews and lots of silent partners in parental volunteers for assists in ushering, merchandise and concession tables, a student art auction and even a raffle offer. The show has a website. The evening of theater starts with a projected video encompassing many of the elements and people involved in the production.

Not your average high school musical, indeed.

“The Book of Empty Pages” has almost 60 characters. Key ones:

+ Sam (Matthew Wautier-Rodriguez), the graduate now paralyzed and facing the prospect of quick death because of bone chip in the wrong place.

+ Daisy (Sachi Bebeau), a caretaker new to her job in a long-term recovery center who is locked into a bad, abuse-filled marriage.

+ Nancy (Luke Pisani), a co-worker of Daisy’s who smokes a lot, nips hard stuff and is past upset that newcomer Daisy got the job she felt she deserves after 18 years.

The story is complex and features unusual elements.

Many scenes take place in a long-term recovery unit. Patients use walkers or canes, or are in wheelchairs. One is blind. The staff is laced with misfits, including some in work-release positions. This large contingent is the ensemble of the musical, with the characters sometimes singing and dancing.

The singing is strong and the cast well-rehearsed. The students are into this show, which is particularly heavy for a high school musical.

This and that:

– The musical carries a PG-13 rating, with an announcement made at the beginning that the show may not be suitable for ages 13 and younger because of language and content. Plus, some of the humor is potty-dark.

– The character of Nancy is outstanding. She is “out there” as a chip-on-the-shoulder person in the first place, and then to be portrayed by a guy… Wow.

– Silhouette scenes enhance the storytelling. One sequence blends real Daisy with her dancing self, with hands seemingly touching. Another flows from beauty to chilling despair.

– Brandon M. Rockstroh’s music spans many styles. The opening, boisterous number thrives on with a touch of an African chant. In another, Sam and Daisy sing a haunting duet of the same music but with words from different directions. In another, a fascinating add-in is a vocal percussion soloist. The super-duper song of the show concludes the first act after all the characters have been established and individuals or groups sing the same basic music from specific perspectives in a sea of sound – something rarely experienced on such a scale on a professional stage, much less in a high school production.

– The ending is … not to be given away here. It creates a buzz.

Overall, “The Book of Empty Pages” is quite an accomplishment in its creation, in the confidence of many people to buy into the project and in the massive effort to pull it off. It certainly makes a statement.

***

Creative: Book, music, lyrics – Brandon M. Rockstroh; orchestration – Emily Marshall; director – Brandon M. Rockstroh; choreographer – Sara Baye; publicity and stage director – Zach Spice; set director – Gary Jordan; art director – Candace Cole; costume director – Mariah Ackermann; hair and make-up director – Lois Gegare; assistant acting director – Terry Martin; tech director – Drew Arnold

Cast: Sam – Matthew Wautier-Rodriguez; Daisy – Sachi Bebeau; Nancy – Luke Pisani; Jack – Jadon Selsmeyer; H – Malik Johnson; Vivian – Diana Pokotylo; Charlotte – Grace Holmes. Featured roles, women: Nurse Bonnie – Paige Lawrence; Paula Ragnowski – Sierra Besaw; Madeline – Erin Brown; Arlene – Reese Keyser; Lucille – Kayla Josephs; Dancer – Mallory Fuhrmann; Bobbi Jo – Jalena Holmgren. Featured roles, men: Ralph Gunderson – Jacob Coleman; Oswald – Luke Gorzek; Thomas – Quentin Brosig; Tanner – Brett Dutkowski; Geno – Brandon Lee; Dancer – Felix Torrez. Supporting roles: Dirk – Felix Torrez; Denise – Emily Holland; Alice – Megan Bethke; Larry – Kevin Barrett; Dr. Edwards – Abigail Martinson. Cameo roles, women: Elizabeth – Tess Ackermann; Rita – JaymeAnn Olson; Gina – Aria Vigil; Genevieve – Audrey Destaercke; Beth Charles – Melanie Alfaro; Karen – Lizzy Cantwell; Bianca – Ash Stary; Sandra – Dominque Nelson; Rachel – Hailey Buth, Syd Gezella. Cameo roles, men: Victor – Lukas Reutzel; Amos – Sean Nelson; Ferdinand – Adam McClure; Davvis – Dalton Carrick; Wilson – Riley Arneson; Frank – Sean Wayka-Berry; Kenny – Marshall Apps; Beatboxer (Song #13) – Cody Perra; Sam Double – Nathaniel Serrano; Hot Shirtless Neighbor – Luke Gorzek; Policeman – Quentin Brosig; Nerdy Man – Riley Arneson; A Cappella Singers – Lunden Friberg, Zak Nelson, John Mac VanMieghem, Vince VanMiegham. Ensemble: Sydney – Jasmine Aguirre; Travis – Marcus Apps; Elise – Malu Hernandez; Henry – Brian Ramirez-Perez; Toby – Alex Santos; Michael – Sam Swiecichowski; Brenda – Carley Thiel; Julia – Emily Tisler; Amber – Kaiya Zold

Orchestra: Conductor – Brandon M. Rockstroh; piano – Dan Heinz; keyboard – Emily Steuer; cello – Adam Brown; violin – Darlene Bentz; guitar – Chris Wueling, Brady Lee (Nov. 24); bass – Brandt Bailey; drums – Tom Zwicker, Zach Spice (Dec. 1)

Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes

Remaining performances: 7 p.m. Nov. 25, Dec. 1, 2, 9

Info: thebookofemptypages.com

***

Musical numbers

Act I

“Anything & Everything”

“Reality”

“Only Answer”

“The Other Side”

“The End”

“Nothing But Perfect”

“Memories of Old”

“Memories of Old” (Reprise)

“Head Over Heels”

“Give Me What’s Mine”

“Different & The Same”

Act II

“Custodial School Crush”

“And If You Want”

“Different Again”

“You’re Not Alone”

“Live & Live On”

***

Some background: http://www.wearegreenbay.com/critic-at-large-wearegreenbay/warren-gerdscritic-at-large-an-extraordinary-high-school-premiere-in-green-bay/832167977.

NEXT: “Les Miserables,” Feb. 9-10, 15-17

THE VENUE: The 860-seat Marsch Family Auditorium is located in Green Bay Southwest High School, which was completed in 1972. The auditorium was renovated in 2016. The hall is spacious and has the feel akin to an amphitheater, with the fan-shaped seating area sloping toward the stage and the back house seats at a steeper slope. The stage is wide, with steps on both ends. The stage is about 3½ feet from the seating area floor, with a slight bow and a brick front. Seats have black plastic backs and arms, with blue fiber for the seating area. The floor is cement painted gray, and the aisles are covered with flecked gray carpets. The ceiling is white, with steps from front to rear. The walls are painted cinder blocks, with standard bricks halfway back. For “The Book of Empty Pages,” the orchestra pit is in a square in the front center of the stage.  

THE PEOPLE: The facility is named for major donors Thomas and Jean Marsch. Jean Marsch is a former Green Bay Public School Board president.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words)” and the award-winning “Real, Honest Sailing with a Great Lakes Captain,” are available online and in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.


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