An art form like theatre in a city such as Birmingham can easily fall into a “Shut up and play the hits” monotony, especially when it comes to musicals. As Broadway moves toward diversity, though, Red Mountain Theatre Company follows suit.
Keith Cromwell, executive director of Red Mountain Theatre Company, is familiar with engineering seasons that have enough classics to draw a crowd and the right amount of new works to remain a vehicle for emerging artists and playwrights. Cromwell and company strive to strike that balance with Band Geeks, a perky new musical composed and conceptualized by Troy University professor Tommy Newman.
“Rodgers and Hammerstein is known as Rodgers and Hammerstein for a reason, but at some point in their day nobody knew who they were,” Cromwell said. “So it’s important for me to support the writers who I hope, beyond my lifetime, become the name-recognized composers of the future.”
Cromwell, who is on the board of directors for the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT), said that he is committed to incubating and supporting the work of new artists.
The conservatory method, as Cromwell described it, adopted by Red Mountain Theatre Company allows young actors and those with limited experience to move through the ranks of Birmingham’s theatre scene and beyond.
“I hate calling them kids because they are, in fact, getting television shows in Los Angeles and on Broadway and on national tours,” Cromwell said. “So they are young professionals that have been trained in our conservatory-style program here.”
Actors in Red Mountain’s conservatory program learn the process of producing a musical from costume design and choreography to advertising and accounting. The Band Geeks cast attended master classes to broaden their understanding of the effort involved in keeping community and professional theatres running, Cromwell explained.
Cromwell said he selected Newman’s musical for Red Mountain Theatre’s “spring slot” specifically to showcase actors between 12 and 18 years old.
“This particular time of year, we always look for things that are a little fresh and a little fun, something that’s not too heavy and not going to have that long of a run in our space,” Cromwell said.
While Band Geeks does explore breezy themes like fitting in and rooting for the underdog, the play challenges musical theatre’s historically whitewashed casting protocol.
Jalen Brown, who stars in the production as tuba player Elliot, said he is excited to be part of the new Broadway tradition. Brown attended a performance of The Phantom of the Opera in 2014 that starred Norm Lewis as the first African American Phantom to appear on Broadway.
“That was one of those moments where I thought, ‘You know, this can happen for me. It’s happening for me,’” Brown said.
Brown, who is a senior in musical theatre major at Montevallo, said he draws inspiration for his own Broadway dreams from tracking Lewis’ career. In addition to the Phantom, Lewis has appeared in other Broadway roles that traditionally star white actors like Javert in Les Miserables, King Triton in The Little Mermaid and Billy Flynn in Chicago. Lewis grew up in Eatonville, Fla., a town of slightly more than 2,000 founded as an all-black community in 1887 where 34.7 percent live bellow the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census.
Brown also noted the most recent cast of Les Misérables featured Nikki M. James, a black female, in the role of Éponine and Kyle Scatliffe, a black male, as Enjolras.
“They had African American people all throughout the ensemble, and when I saw it (I recently saw the newest production in New York) that was one of the things that really struck me,” Brown said. “A show that people generally think would be dominated by Caucasian actors — they’ve taken it and thrown these people in it, and it’s no different.”
Originally from Decatur, Ala., Brown said he felt he broke the mold with his pursuit of musical theatre.
“There were times where I felt like I should be doing something different than theatre, just simply because where I grew up, sports is the thing, like, it’s the thing in that area of Alabama definitely,” Brown said.
Brown, who measures in at approximately six-foot, explained that during his years at Austin High School he was frequently stereotyped.
“If you grow up looking like someone like me, people automatically expect you to play football,” Brown said. “So, they’d be like, ‘Oh, what position do you play?’ And I would always look at them like, “I don’t play football. I—I do theatre.’”
Although his grandmother was continuously supportive of Brown’s goals, he explained that his parents were not always sure if theatre was an appropriate path.
“My stepfather was a little iffy for a while,” Brown said. “Where he grew up people doing theatre, especially black men doing musical theatre, was just not a thing that was heard of.”
Decatur has a population of 55,816 with 21.7 percent African Americans and 20.2 percent living below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And while the trajectory of a career in the arts may not always be considered as easily navigable or immediately financially profitable as a career in a more conventional field, Brown explained that he is determined like his role model, to follow the path that he feels is right for him.
“I feel a responsibility to share the art form that I love with the community that I come from,” Brown said. “I definitely do feel that I owe it back to say, ‘Hey, it’s possible. You can do it to. It’s not just some shot in the night possibility that may or may not happen. It is possible. You can do it.’”
The theme of Band Geeks is one that Brown and Cromwell both believe audiences can relate to.
“It’s just a show about fitting in and finding out how to be yourself while also finding out what you want,” Brown said. “And I think that’s just a really universal thing for people. I feel like everyone’s had a time where they didn’t know where they belonged or they felt like an outsider or out cast, and I think the really important part of this show is that all of these characters somehow find out how to stay true to themselves, but also find out how they kind of fit in with each other and how to form a family in a sense.”
“I think that that’s where the arts can be such a salve at times to the hurting kid,” said Cromwell. “Especially in a state like Alabama where sports rule, and if you don’t rock out in some version of a sport and you end up in the art lane, you can tend to be the ostracized, bullied outcast.”
Band Geeks opens Thursday, April 16 and runs through Sunday, April 19. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday–Sunday with matinee performances at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit redmountaintheatre.org.