Give me three weeks, Benjamin Wolfe tells his students, and I’ll make a better actor out of you.
Wolfe is the founder and director of the Savannah Summer Theatre Institute, an intensive training camp which began in 2008 as an extension of Savannah Country Day School.
“That’s how it started,” Wolfe explains. “This year, we only have two Country Day students in the show. We have two from Indiana, one from Michigan, two from two different places in North Carolina, two from Louisiana, one from Aiken and one from London. And there are four or five kids that are run from Hilton Head every day.”
The high school–age students work full–time days for three weeks to learn, rehearse and perform a contemporary musical. Last year’s production was Hairspray; for 2012, it’s Legally Blonde.
“To teach kids how professional theater works, you can’t do it during the school year,” says Wolfe, a graduate of the Armstrong Atlantic State University theater program. “And you can’t do it in community theater, because they have school and they have things to do. But here, they rehearse eight hours a day like a professional actor does. We give them union breaks. It’s really a professional training ground for them.”
Based on the hit film from 2001, Legally Blonde received seven Tony nominations during its initial Broadway run in 2007. It tells the story of Elle Woods, a ditzy sorority girl who surprises everyone by earning a Harvard law degree.
“These kids get about the same amount of time as the professionals over the bridge at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina get,” Wolfe explains. “They learned all the music, spot–on, in a week. Choreography always takes a little bit longer, as does blocking.”
Wolfe is directing the show, and gives major props to his co–workers, in particular the music director and choreographer. It’s been a breathless couple of weeks for them all.
There are 24 young people in the cast.
“One tricky thing about doing the whole show here in three weeks is we like to divide and conquer when we rehearse,” he says. “I’ll take a scene and block it in the back, and they’ll be doing choreography onstage.
“In my directing career, Elle Woods is probably the largest role that I’ve ever had to direct. She’s literally onstage for 99.9 percent of the show. It’s impossible for us to rehearse concurrent scenes in other places because she’s just needed everywhere. She’s got 15 costumes. It’s just an all–consuming role for this young performer.”
Elle is played by 17–year–old Alexandra Kenneweg, from Hilton Head.
The SSTI residency includes master classes from visiting professionals. The Legally Blonde company spent some quality time with Roger Bart, a Tony and Drama Desk winner for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. His other Broadway credits include the original Young Frankenstein (as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein), The Producers (as Leo Bloom), Big River, King David and more.
Bart also won a Screen Actors Guild Award for TV’s Desperate Housewives, and played Carmen Ghia in the film version of The Producers.
According to Wolfe, Bart could not have been more accommodating. “I knew Roger had some connections to Savannah,” he says. “He took questions at the end, and the kids asked him to do lines from the shows, and talk about creating the characters.”
By no means was it all fun and games, however.
“He advised them all about the business, about college selection, and he was really good. The students each had a 32–bar song selection they had prepared for him, and he and his girlfriend — she’s a Carnegie Mellon musical theater graduate — heard them sing, and they gave about 10 minutes of feedback per kid. They were with these kids for four hours, and they were asking me if they could have more time.”
Normally, the master class would be held the week after the summer production ends, but Bart had a prior commitment — reprising The Producers at the Hollywood Bowl — so he came to Savannah while Legally Blonde was still in rehearsal.
The impressive, professionally–built set is ready, the cast awaiting their cues. The show opens July 20.
As for the SSTI program, which is not strictly affiliated with Country Day any longer (they’re leasing the auditorium), it’s grown beyond Wolfe’s wildest expectations.
He gets to choose from the hungriest young performers.
“The quality gets better and better and better,” he says. “These are the kids who want to do it more. They take the time to get a videographer and record an audition; they memorize lines and they hire an accompanist. So they’re doing all these things to prepare their audition.
“Which shows just a genuine interest in wanting to be successful that therefore the quality is automatically raised.”
Savannah Summer Theatre Institute: Legally Blonde The Musical
Where: Savannah County Day School auditorium, 824 Stillwood Drive
When: At 7 p.m. July 20, 21, 27, 28; at 2 p.m. July 22 and 29
Tickets: $15 adults, $12 students
Phone: (843) 715–2188