- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2000

Not many in the theater world can emulate Harriet Bronstein. Not many may want to. A member of the Screen Actors Guild and a former professional summer stock performer, she is a free-lance theater director in area schools, where she works more for fun than money.

Like a modern troubadour, she goes from one school to another organizing student productions, sometimes handling two at once. She is directing "South Pacific" at the District of Columbia's Wilson High School, a project she regards as the "most compelling" she has tackled.

"It's so well-constructed plotwise; it doesn't have extra fluff," she explains. "The songs are terrific, and the kids have to really reach in their roles."

Such seeming altruism is more understandable when you consider that Ms. Bronstein is the mother of three sons, one of them a senior at Wilson and another in ninth grade at Deal Junior High School.

American musicals are Ms. Bronstein's specialty. She believes strongly in the benefits to students of that particular art form, if only as a lesson in teamwork. She has directed plays, as well, in the 10 years since she began her peripatetic rounds, but she sees her real challenge in introducing today's young people to a theater tradition of which most are almost totally ignorant.

"The only ones they might know would be 'Grease' or 'The Sound of Music,' "she notes. "They wouldn't necessarily watch musicals on TV."

She directed "Grease" at Deal this spring, at the same time she was doing "Once Upon a Mattress" at School of the Holy Child in Potomac. She also has worked at Lafayette Elementary School since moving to Washington in 1990 from California when her husband, lawyer Tom Cohen, changed jobs.

A theater arts major at the University of California at Los Angeles, she found the name of her college musical teacher among the original 1949 "South Pacific" cast while reading the libretto in preparation for the Wilson production. Her satisfaction, she says, comes from "being able to share a love, which is musical theater, with kids who would not otherwise be exposed to it and to see these kids blossom, so they know they are an important part of something bigger than themselves."

• • •

Early on, she hired a professional choreographer Duke Ellington High School graduate Raquis Petre. Her "in-house" collaborator is Wilson's music director, John Cornelius, a professional pianist and conductor who teaches an elective course in the history of musical theater. He will provide piano accompaniment for the show along with student Sarah Gilberg, 16, a junior.

"We wanted to find a show that would involve the entire school and that said something about where the school is now, which is very much about inclusion," Mr. Cornelius says. "It's a show that speaks to diversity. Plus, we wanted something that wouldn't be a dance-heavy show."

The only other possibility they found was "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat," which was rejected "because there weren't a lot of women's parts," he says.

"South Pacific" had the additional advantage, he notes, of being "athletic and aesthetic at the same time." Musical theater in general, he believes, helps students "connect the pieces they have a gazillion pieces of information but have difficulty connecting them. I have students who get the dates mixed up between the Korean and Second World War."

In the end, the seldom-performed, 51-year-old "South Pacific" seemed perfect, if only because, in Ms. Bronstein's words, "It has a nice message."

The plot is a musical drama of love, war and racial tolerance based originally on James Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific," which was inspired by the author's experiences in World War II. In it, Nellie Forbush, a nurse from Little Rock, Ark., falls in love with a Frenchman, Emile Le Becque, the father of two children by a Polynesian woman.

"I think the musical isn't often done because people are afraid of this issue," Ms. Bronstein suggests. "I had never done it before. And race is something we confront in this city and at that school every day."

• • •

The last musical done at Wilson was "Bye Bye Birdie" about 25 years ago, according to career and consumer services teacher Barbara Hutton, who is in charge of costumes for "South Pacific." Costuming is half student contribution and half rental.

Joe Riener, a Wilson English teacher and parent, is the producer. As adviser to the school's drama group, the Wilson Players a student-run group whose next play is Tom Stoppard's "Travesties" he was able to persuade the Parent Student Teacher Association to advance $5,000 for the musical project. Ms. Bronstein's fee, if any, comes only after bills are paid. "If we're lucky, we will break even," she says.

Helping with the scenery is ABC-TV "Nightline" art director Steve Bottorff, parent of sophomore Emily Bottorff, 16, one of the stars of the show. Other parents help with lighting, props, publicity and tickets.

Emily, who spent the summer performing with the Montgomery College Summer Theatre, plays Nellie. Steven Walker, 16, a junior, has had to juggle the role of Emile with participation in the school's marching band. Ms. Bronstein rented tapes for him so he could practice a French accent.

"Does anyone know what a 'moustique' is?" he called out plaintively from the stage one afternoon recently. (French for mosquito.)

In addition to memorizing words and songs, the Wilson cast members were given an assignment to research the lives of teen-agers in the 1940s because, in Mr. Cornelius' words, "the notion of being a teen-ager is a '50s tradition. In the '40s a teen often was lucky to go through the 12th grade."

Total expenses for the show include a $1,600 fee paid for performance rights and rental of 25 scripts for a cast of 40. The timing of the show means that few seniors have taken part because they are busy with college applications and visits.

"As you work with kids, things happen," Ms. Bronstein says of her experience working with student groups through the years. "You'll see them unfolding some scene in front of you and realize from their interactions there is a different take on it than you originally thought. Many of them never really have been on stage before."

Sophomore Albert Nyange, 16, last was on stage at age "10 or 11" in his native Tanzania. He plays a Navy captain who must send two men on a reconnaissance mission against the Japanese, knowing they probably won't come back.

"We talk a little about how these men must feel," she says. Part of her coaching job, too, was coaching Albert into "trying to act more authoritative."

At rehearsal, the petite Ms. Bronstein is a mix of mother figure and Marine sergeant. She pleads, yells and even cajoles to bring her talented, hyperkinetic teen-agers in line and mold them into an acting troupe however temporarily.

"It's important I get your full concentration," she urges politely but firmly. Later, interrupting the male chorus belting out "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" in full throttle, she says, bitingly: "Listen to the piano, geniuses."

Mr. Cornelius, at the piano, doesn't mince words either. "Don't waste my time, people," he commands in a deep voice. "I say that with as much love as I can muster."

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