Dallas — “If all the world’s a stage, what does it matter where we perform?” That easy twisting of Shakespeare comes out of the mouth of Rob Chalmers (Doug Fowler), the beloved debate and drama teacher at Chippewa Valley High School in Kansas, the setting of James Hindman’s The Drama Department.
The play, originally presented in 2013 at the Second Stage New Play Reading Series in New York, is receiving its world premiere production at Uptown Players’ 2016 Dallas Pride Performing Arts Festival, directed by Kevin Moore with dogged sincerity. Dennis Canright’s minimal set features props for an office and a classroom, punctuated by Aaron Johansen’s lighting design that effectively cues the multiple scene shifts from one side of the stage to the other.
In his opening monologue congratulating the record number of students who auditioned for this year’s musical, the popular Mr. Chalmers can barely contain his excitement. In a town mostly notable for losing sports teams, the Friday night lights are all focused on the school’s award-winning debate team and annual musical.
This unlikely premise notwithstanding, we take it on faith that the city has gone and built this crackerjack team of thespians a $1.5 million auditorium to be completed in short order and inaugurated with this year’s production. For his 16th show, Chalmers’ has chosen Seussical the Musical, and everybody’s totally psyched.
That is, until Chalmers posts the cast list the next morning, and it'discovered that the son of the school board chairman has not landed his customary lead role, and that The Cat in the Hat will be played, in fact, by a bashful new kid in town named David Sullivan, played by a wistful, vulnerable Jaxon Beeson.
The powerful pissed-off parent chairman puts the word out right away to the nervous new principal (constantly edgy, red-faced Shane Beeson) that he wants this obvious casting mistake fixed, and pronto.
The mostly conventional plot turns on the impact of the invisible bullying board chairman on the beleaguered drama teacher, and especially on his colleagues in the high school, as a whisper campaign and high school blogging site begin spreading rumors. What’s the skinny on the unmarried Mr. Chalmers and his relationships with those students he takes under his cheerfully optimistic wing? Shy, secretive David has many theatrical talents, and geeky-smart debater Sarah (fresh-faced Kennedy Waterman) surprises everybody with a stitch in time.
Fowler’s Chalmers is an upright teacher, rigid in his posture and almost prissy in his preachy dedication to living up to one’s potential in theater and in life. Oh, yes. Fowler’s best when he straightens his shoulders once more and draws an inner dignity about himself as the gossip campaign mounts to a threatening level, and he’s forced to stand and deliver—or not.
Kristen Eisenberg as the math teacher and Chalmer’s old friend brings a friendly grin and lighter touch to a sadly familiar story pitting loyal, open-minded folks against self-serving, small-town bigots.
Trey Tolleson, heavy-footed and strung-out at once, gets the most laughs as the determined bandleader intent on getting a few new instruments for his “orchestra” out of the deal.
Connie Brown Bentham is credible in the show’s most difficult dramatic turn as David’s mother, in her chatty, nervous, honest encounter with her son’s favorite teacher.
The Drama Department does a good job in evoking the delight that “musical geeks” and high school outsiders often feel when they find themselves at home among others for whom theater is a joy and a lifeline. Unfortunately, the second act surprises feel manufactured for the plot’s sake rather than growing from the characters and their situations.
Hindman, a veteran Broadway and off-Broadway actor, has written a number of plays that have received nominations for both Drama Desk and Outer Critic Circle Awards. His work includes Pete n’ Keely, a musical comedy about a divorced duo reunited for a special show; I Love New York, a bistro musical; and Bikinis...a new musical beach party. The Drama Department characters talk about musical theater, and we hear bits of recorded tunes between the many scenes, but nobody’s actually singing in nearly two hours of departmental drama.