Royal Players divide youth ensembles; older group tackling musical

By Wayne Bryan Published January 12, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Wayne Bryan

Director Justin Pike, right, a veteran actor with the Royal Players in Benton, talks with cast members of Footloose: The Musical before their run-through of the play. The show, performed by the Second Stage actors of the Royal Young Players, will open Thursday.

The latest production of live theater at the Royal Theatre in Benton is the debut of the Royal Players Second Stage, a group of older members of the Young Players of the Royal Theatre, said Daphne Shoppach, producer and Royal Players actress.

“Many of our older Young Players said they were spending most of their time helping the youngest members of the cast rather than being able to grow their own talents and expand their own theater experience,” Shoppach said, “so the Second Stage group was developed for the older actors among the Young Players.”

Young Players is for youths 14 through college age, she said.

Footloose: The Musical is a dance-driven story about the wisdom of listening with a warm heart and an open mind to young people. The show, which highlights a rock-music score featuring songs from the 1980s, was selected as the first production for the older young people, who are now the ages of the characters in the story.

“Our director, Justin Pike, brought the play to me when we said we were looking for something for the older Young Players,” Shoppach said. “The kids have gotten a lot out of the experience. On Dec. 21, the young members of the cast met with Patrick Ryan, a New York-based actor who was in the 2001 national tour of the play.”

Pike, a veteran actor with the Benton theater group, said the cast first came together just before Thanksgiving. There are 30 cast members, with 22 of them being Young Players. Their first job was to learn the dance moves that play a large part in the show. Jenny Johnston is handling the choreography for the production.

“The cast has been working on the moves for about five weeks,” Pike said Jan. 3. “We are just doing our first stumble-through of the first act. We are not really to walk through yet. We’re stumbling.”

Shoppach said adults will play the adult parts, but the dancing is in the hands of the young people.

“What kid doesn’t want to dance?” she asked.

“The music is the same as in the 1984 movie,” Pike said. “The story was updated for the stage play in 2000 and 2005, and when the new movie comes out, I’m sure they will update again.”

The plot remains the same. The story is about Ren, a young man from Chicago who moves with his mother to a small farming community. As if the adjustment isn’t hard enough, there are local edicts, including a ban on dancing instituted by the local preacher, the Rev. Shaw Moore, played by Chuck Massey, determined to exercise the control over the town’s youth.

Of course, Ren falls for the minister’s daughter, with young love headed to a happy musical ending.

“They did remove the original scene where the reverend slaps his daughter,” Pike said. “And, of course, there are no fast cars racing down the road on stage.”

Pike said he likes the cast.

“The cool thing is, there are kids from all over Arkansas, with young actors from Malvern, North Little Rock, Little Rock and Arkadelphia, not just Benton and Bryant.

Playing Ren, the hero of the story, is Ben Mills of Haskell. At 15, this is his first time to appear at the Royal. He said he has performed only in choir before taking on this role.

Ren’s new best friend is played by Koty Mansfield, 19, a student at Henderson State University. This is his 14th production with the Young Players. He said he has appeared on stage since he was 7 years old.

Ariel Moore, the preacher’s daughter, is played by Hannah Blacklaw, 15, of Benton.

Pike said the play is relevant for today’s young people, just as it was in the 1980s.

“It has a universal theme,” he said. “It is about the bonds of family and also about fighting for what you believe in. On the 30th anniversary of the movie, the kids are just as excited.”

Pike said he wants the experience to broaden the horizons of the young actors.

“Talking with the professionals, the actors are learning about the structure of the professional theater, the real timelines. This way, if they get their next taste of theater in college, the pace won’t be as shocking.”

The show will run at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday; at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday; and at 2 p.m. Jan. 19 at The Royal Theatre, 111 S. Market St. in downtown Benton. To reserve tickets, call (501) 315-5483. Pike said ticket sales for the show have been strong.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or at wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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