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Passionate theater kids take center stage

TV-THEATERKIDS

Josh Radnor plays high school theater director Lou Mazzuchelli in ‘Rise.’

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BY So­nia Rao
The Wash­ing­ton Post

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Here is a theory: NBC is trying to drown us in our own tears.

The network is committed to airing shows that masterfully tug at Americans’ heartstrings. Before “This Is Us,” there was the football-centric “Friday Night Lights” and the family drama “Parenthood,” two series produced by Jason Katims that never ran short on misfortune or inspiring comeback stories. The showrunner’s latest, “Rise,” adheres to the same formula while highlighting a new community: theater kids.

Luckily for us, the tear-jerker has somewhat of a comedic counterpart in Mindy Kaling and Charlie Grandy’s midseason sitcom “Champions.” Whereas “Rise” follows high school theater director Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) and his students as he acclimates to his new role, “Champions” centers on a gym owner named Vince (Anders Holm) whose life turns upside down after his son, Michael (J.J. Totah), moves in with him to attend a performing-arts school in New York.

However different in genre, both series rely on the passion and sincerity of the talented teenagers to captivate audiences. This is not a new occurrence — school musicals have long been used as plot devices — but it is a notable one considering they technically are not the main characters of either show. Despite episodic arcs designed to make us care most about Lou and Vince, the men arguably are the weakest links of “Rise” and Champions.” Theater kids steal the show.

Start with Michael, since that is what the spirited character probably would want. Upon leaving the 15-year-old in New York with the father he just met, single mother Priya (Kaling) tells her son: “You were the sweetest little boy — until you turned 4. Then you saw Bernadette Peters sing ‘Send in the Clowns’ on PBS and you have complained every day since that you need to live in New York City.” When Vince criticizes Priya’s parenting later in the episode, Michael defends her by yelling: “My mother is an angel! You robbed her of her youth and left her for dead, like Fantine in ‘Les Mis,’ so I had to be raised by the ghoul she had become!”

Vince did not actually leave his pregnant high school sweetheart for dead, of course, but instead moved to Arizona to pursue his college baseball dreams. When they did not pan out, he moved to New York and took over his late father’s gym in Brooklyn.

Michael is a lot to handle at times, but he is the heart of “Champions.” Kaling is an executive producer on the series and only will recur as Priya, meaning her trademark pop-culture references and eccentric personality — previously seen with Mindy Lahiri of “The Mindy Project” and Kelly Kapoor of “The Office” — have been passed to her character’s son instead. Michael serves as a foil for his jock father the same way Mindy did for “Project” love interest Danny Castellano, both brightening the shows with a healthy dose of melodrama. While “Champions” has yet to show Michael at his performing-arts school, his interactions with the comparatively bland Vince indicate that he probably will shine there, too.

“Rise” is set in a blue-collar Pennsylvania town that no longer has its steel mill, and noted sitcom actor Radnor plays Lou, a painfully earnest English teacher who snags Stanton High’s theater-directing gig in the pilot. It is all well and good for Lou, who claims that he wants to make the program into “something special,” except that he is kind of an awful person. His hard-working colleague Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez) had planned to put on “Grease,” and he instead announces that the musical will be “Spring Awakening.” He continues to undermine her authority throughout the show, which he justifies by telling his wife of his new role: “I need this. I need something.”

Just as Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) took up too much screen time on “Glee,” “Rise” is better off when it casts Lou aside in favor of the compelling Stanton High students. You might shed a few tears for Maashous Evers (Rarmian Newton), an essentially homeless foster kid who the Mazzuchelli family takes in. Or maybe you will feel for Gwen Strickland (Amy Forsyth), whose talent Lou overlooks and whose parents are on the brink of divorce. There is another kid whose Christian parents disapprove of him playing a gay character in the school’s musical and a transgender student determined to use the boys’ changing room in an early episode.

It is a Katims show, after all, so prepare your emotions accordingly.

The most impressive ensemble member easily is Auli’i Cravalho, whose voice viewers might recognize from “Moana.” She plays Lilette Suarez, a waitress’ daughter who wants more than what Stanton can offer her. After gentle prodding, she puts her soul into playing Wendla Bergmann, a lead character in “Spring Awakening,” opposite quarterback Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie), who plays Melchior Gabor. Lou gains a few points for noticing the chemistry between these two students, which emerges as one of the show’s greatest strengths.

“Champions” and “Rise” showcase the welcoming space that musical theater can provide for teenagers, something that student survivors of last month’s tragedy in Parkland, Fla., unexpectedly highlighted, too. As the New Yorker’s Michael Schulman pointed out, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s drama club also is preparing for a production of “Spring Awakening.” (Stoneman Douglas junior Cameron Kasky tweeted last month that he was “using my in flight chat to learn my Spring Awakening lines,” which would not have felt out of place coming from Michael, who elevates “Champions” with similarly amusing quips.)

NBC executives announced in January during the Television Critics Association press tour that the network would donate $500,000 to high school theater programs nationwide in honor of the release of “Rise.” NBC partnered with the Educational Theatre Foundation to do so.

“This program is incredibly personal to me as someone whose own life was changed by a high school theater program,” NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt said, per Variety. “I wholeheartedly support the work of the ETF and have seen the effect of their initiatives on thousands of students. I’m proud that ‘Rise’ will be more than just an uplifting show about a high school drama program, but, through this initiative, will also have an impact on the lives of real students in 50 high schools.”

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