Let's put on a show!

Teen performers take over Shaftman
for 'Opening Doors'

By KEVIN KITTREDGE
THE ROANOKE TIMES

   It's Saturday night. It's Shaftman Hall. And it's free.

    Anyone looking for something to do tonight could do worse than head for Jefferson Center, where "Opening Doors," a musical, will begin at half-past seven. No tickets are necessary, and there is no admission charge.ssion charge.

    "Opening Doors" is presented by the Kevin Jones Performing Arts Studio and funded by area businesses and residents. Fourteen Roanoke Valley high school students, many with multiple professional acting credits, will star in the 75-minute production in Roanoke's glitziest auditorium.

    The idea came from Jones, a private theater instructor with experience as an actor and musical director in America and abroad. The Canada native moved to Roanoke six years ago to work as music director at Mill Mountain Theatre. The following year he founded his performing arts studio to help interested youths learn the rudiments of musical theater. He still sometimes works for the theater.

    Jones noticed quickly that Roanoke had more talented youths than other cities its size, perhaps because of the influence of Mill Mountain Theatre. It soon dawned on him that "my kids could put on a really great show."

    Why Shaftman Hall?

    Jones wanted a hall that would duplicate for his students insofar as possible the effect of opening night in a packed New York theater, he said.ter, he said.

    "That's definitely Shaftman," he said.

    The auditorium, reopened in 2001 after extensive renovations, is more than twice the size of Mill Mountain Theatre's main theater. It regularly hosts performances by Opera Roanoke and the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra and books professional musicians such as the Average White Band and Irish singer Mary Black.r Mary Black.

    "Opening Doors" is a pastiche of songs by composer/lyricists Richard Maltby and David Shire, stitched together by Jones to make a musical narrative of a journey through life. The songs touch on childhood, young love, relationships, babies and relationships gone sour, with a message of reconciliation at the end.

    The show will be performed with no intermission.intermission.

    "Straight through, hit them hard, send them home smiling," Jones said.

    The $5,000 production cost, which includes $2,000 for Shaftman Hall rental and associated fees, has been covered by various donors, including SunTrust Bank. "We try to support the arts generally, and we try to support youth programs," said Martha Shifflett, a SunTrust vice president. "This allowed us to do both." Fund raising was handled by Dale Moore, mother of one of the actors, Alex Moore.

    Jones said it was important to him, with Broadway ticket prices topping $100 these days and even Mill Mountain Theatre charging about $30 for some shows, to offer this performance free of charge.ee of charge.

    "I feel the magic of theater is quickly becoming inaccessible to many theatergoers," he said. "It is our gift to the valley."

    The actors are from Roanoke Valley high schools. Salem High School freshman Holly Strickland is one of the youngest at 14; several are seniors. Most have multiple acting credits, including not only school productions but Showtimers and Mill Mountain Theatre. About half of them worked with Broadway actors on a production at Mill Mountain Theatre sponsored by the Bravo television network in fall 2001.

    Many are serious about pursuing a career in musical theater and believe working with Jones has given them a head start. "I'm learning so much every day. I feel like I already have an edge," said Elise Bernlohr, 15, a freshman at Hidden Valley.

    "He teaches you about the business," said 15-year-old Julie Jones (no relation). The Cave Spring freshman has appeared in nine Mill Mountain shows. "How you don't want to get on anybody's bad side. And how important it is to be yourself."t is to be yourself."

    Meghan Kelleher, a Cave Spring senior and veteran of several Mill Mountain plays, said Jones' school is the only one in Roanoke that teaches singing, dancing and acting. "I get all three in one. And we get great opportunities like this," she added of performing at Shaftman Hall.

    Saturday night's performance is by Jones' acting company, all of whom are high school students. He also gives lessons to younger students and to adults.nd to adults.

    Jere Hodgin, director of Mill Mountain Theatre, said there is no competition between the theater and Jones, because Mill Mountain does not offer musical theater training. "Basically, he's the only person in town who's doing that."

    Hodgin also stressed that Jones' actors do not get special treatment in auditions. "We just cast the best kid."

    If these kids aren't the best, it isn't for lack of trying. In addition to the occasional play at Mill Mountain Theatre or at Showtimers, the Roanoke Valley's venerable community theater company, many participate in school productions as well.

    Bernlohr will play Princess Winifred in Hidden Valley's upcoming production of "Once Upon a Mattress," for which she attends rehearsals in the afternoon. During evenings last week she was at Roanoke's Calvary Baptist Church, rehearsing "Opening Doors" and working on her algebra homework between numbers. Bernlohr also has appeared in productions of "Rapunzel" and "Pinocchio" at Mill Mountain Theatre.

    She has no wish to slow down, she said. "You get a snowball effect, and you feel like if you stop the snowball, you'll stop making progress."ogress."ogress."

    And what of traditional teenage joys, such as watching television or talking on the phone?

    Who cares? the actors say. During one recent, often noisy rehearsal, for example, not a single cellphone rang. As for television, "I would give up TV totally just to be on stage," Holly Strickland said.

    They don't lack for confidence. Several said they were thrilled to be performing in $10 million Shaftman Hall. None said they were scared.

    "I wouldn't call it overwhelming," said Jordan McArthur, a Salem High School senior and veteran of many Mill Mountain shows. "But I would call it pretty exciting."

    Said Alex Kostura, a sophomore at Cave Spring High School whose professional credits include "Soup, Soap and Salvation":

    "I think we're going to pack it."ack it."

    For information on Kevin Jones Performing Arts Studio, visit www.kjpas.com or call 774-8388.

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Opening Doors Foundation
6079 Oriole Lane  Roanoke, VA  24018
Phone: 540.774.8388
Email: kevin@openingdoorsfoundation.com