Highwood Theatre’s appetite for musicals continues with production of ‘Sweeney Todd’
by Cara Hedgepeth
In 2004, Kevin Kearney, a 14-year-old student at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., founded his own theater group, The Highwood Theatre, after discovering the high-pressure culture surrounding high school theater programs.
“It started as a place where students would come to work on theater in a low-pressure, more supportive environment,” says Kearney, now 22.
Eight years later what started as a group of Sidwell students rehearsing in the basement of Kearney’s childhood home has evolved into a nonprofit organization with a permanent home at School for Tomorrow in Rockville. But Highwood’s mission has remained the same.
“We really do believe in inspiring students,” says Kearney, who also serves as the director of the Theatre Arts Program at School for Tomorrow. “We push them to explore new concepts, new ideas ... and to really push themselves.”
The Highwood Theatre is completely student-run.
“Our claim to fame is we involve students in all areas of the performing arts,” says Kearney.
Highwood students — who range from fifth through 12th grade — come from schools across the county, although the majority are students at School for Tomorrow. Students have the opportunity to direct, design sets and costumes, do makeup, work as stage managers and even have a say in show selection.
“We like to do full-fledged Broadway shows,” says Kearney. “I usually ask students for their input.”
As a part of The Highwood Theatre’s 10th anniversary season in 2012 and 2013, the company will present eight productions — doubling its normal number of performances. This fall, it was all about the musicals.
Following productions of “Next to Normal” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” in November and early December, Highwood presents “Sweeney Todd,” playing this weekend only.
The 1979 Broadway show about 19th century English barber Benjamin Barker, a.k.a. Sweeney Todd, who seeks revenge for his wife’s death by killing customers and baking them into pies, was adapted for the screen in 2007 by Tim Burton.
“It’s a play that lots of the students knew ... it’s also a play I’ve seen a few times,” says Kearney. “It’s very difficult music but it also has a really fun and engaging story that I knew a lot of the students would get involved in.”
“I’d heard of it and knew it was a play that was about some barber who killed people,” says Eli Leizerov, 14.
Though Leizerov’s knowledge of “Sweeney Todd” was limited, his experience with Highwood is not.
Leizerov, who was in another theater group in fourth grade and stars in “Sweeney Todd” as Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli, says “Highwood is definitely a different experience.” He adds that highlights have included being a member of the stage building crew and set construction team in shows last year.
“That was definitely fun,” says Leizerov.
Many of the 16 actors in “Sweeney Todd” will double as members of the crew.
School For Tomorrow seventh grader Madison Middleton stars as Johanna Barker, Sweeney Todd’s daughter, in addition to designing the set, costumes and doing makeup.
“It’s really inspiring because you see what it takes to put on a production,” says Middleton. “How stressful but really fun [it is].”
This will be Middleton’s sixth show with Highwood and she says she is especially excited because “Sweeney Todd” is a bit of a departure from Highwood’s typical productions.
“I love it because it [is] so dark and so different from anything we’ve ever done before,” says Middleton.
Eighth grader Max Rome joined The Highwood Theatre almost on a whim at the beginning of last year when Kearney asked if he’d like to be in a School for Tomorrow production of “The Pink Panther Strikes Again!”
“He asked me if I wanted to be in it, and I said, ‘Why not?’” says Rome.
The 13-year-old was chosen for the part of Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau; the lead in “The Pink Panther.”
“It’s a great confidence boost so I continued through the next year doing other productions [with Highwood],” says Rome, who has also worked as the stage manager in past productions.
“I liked having an authority kind of thing and I thought that having this responsibility was a good experience,” he says.
Rome’s experience is not unusual for students at The Highwood Theatre.
“I see people with no interest in theater at all, and I see them directing or building sets,” says Middleton. “I just think that’s really cool.”