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At arts magnet Greeley Central, Barnum is the Greatest Show on Earth

March 30, 2019


Terry Frei

From the Monday run-through of “Barnum” at Greeley Central High:
In the white shirt, junior Brian Davis, as P.T. Barnum, closes a handshake
deal with the Ringmaster/Bailey, played by Taylor Henderson, left.
Henderson’s role is gender-flipped in the GCHS production. She recently
was named a recipient of a prestigious Boettcher Scholarship. Dancers
at right are Ashlea Gamer (ponytail) and Simone Campbell. (Except where
noted, photos by Terry Frei )

After Thursday’s Opening Night performance of Greeley Central High School’s spring musical, “Barnum,” I was about to open the door at the side of the auditorium and head down the hallway to again speak with cast members — perhaps junior Brian Davis, who played P.T. Barnum, or senior Jaeda Shackley, who portrayed his wife, Charity.

Brion Humphrey cautioned me. The GCHS theater teacher and “Barnum” director said that the kids might come charging up the hall. I thought he meant that because of the post-show excitement, the cast would be energetically moving around. I looked to my right, toward the green room and the backstage area. The hall seemed deserted. Then, to my left, a kid called out, “Watch out!”

During the curtain call and standing ovation for the entire cast, Brian
Davis as P.T. Barnum takes a solo bow. Behind Davis from left are Savana
Long (in red, Blues Singer), Jaeda Shackley (Charity Barnum), Taylor
Henderson (Ringmaster/Bailey), Lucas Moir (Tom Thumb) and Charmaynae
Johns (Joice Heth).

A few seconds later, most of the cast and crew came running up the hall en masse, as if this were the running of the bulls at Pamplona, and burst through suddenly opened doors into the lobby, where their families and friends awaited. There were emotional and fervent hugs and even tears all around. The tumult was an extension of the curtain call and standing ovation of about 10 minutes earlier, and witnessing the charge to the lobby and the gathering, I had learned of another theater tradition. At least at GCHS.

Yes, I’m writing about one high school’s spring musical. That high school happens to be Greeley Central and the musical is “Barnum.” It is the tale of the showman who in the opening song of the musical that starred Jim Dale and Glenn Close and ran on Broadway from 1980-82, declared: “There is a sucker born ev’ry minute.

GCHS’ six-show “Barnum” run concludes next Thursday and Friday (7 p.m.) and Saturday (4 p.m.). Saluting the spirit of the production, the school will hold a carnival before the final show.

It also could have been at a high school selected through a scientific process of closing my eyes, reaching out with a pin, sticking it in a spot on a U.S. map and going to the production closest to that location.

Jaeda Shackley (Charity Barnum) and Brian Davis (P.T. Barnum) in the lobby gathering after Opening Night.

While participation never has been universal — I stuck to sports, for example, and would have had zero talent as a thespian — the high school spring musical is an All-American phenomenon, part of the national fabric. Go find the box in the basement, and pull out the yearbooks, whether from decades or a few years ago. Somewhere in there is the musical, perhaps between the French Club and the tennis teams, with the show choices evolving over the years — from “Oklahoma,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Kiss Me Kate;” to “Les Miserables,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Young Frankenstein” and even “Rent.”

So in this narrative, GCHS — District 6’s arts magnet school — represents everywhere. Any time. Past, present and future. In many ways, not all, the “Barnum” cast and crew is a diverse group, including with hair seemingly every color of the rainbow. It doesn’t take long to notice the bonds, the friendships, the passion for what they are doing, whether what they are doing is working on the stage crew, or handing out programs, or dancing and singing on stage. I imagine that’s universal, too.

Jaeda Shackley, right, gives her approval of the pre-rehearsal pizza.

In the GCHS auditorium Monday afternoon after school, the pizza boxes were balanced on the wall between the lower and upper orchestra seats and the cast and crew members periodically dived in. Their task was to get in costume, go out that side door into the hall. There, they’d have their pictures taken for posterity and for individual posters that would be in the lobby during the show’s run. Then they’d get ready for a choreography rehearsal at 6 p.m., and a full run-through after that.

I admit that when I proposed this story and contacted Brion Humphrey, I naively was thinking rehearsal was like football practice. (Humphrey is “Brian” on such things as the official GCHS faculty listings, but “Brion” in all things theatre.) Everybody gets together after school, right? They practice. Then they’re home in time for dinner, video games, “Game of Thrones” and homework?

Au contraire, I quickly learned.

Theatre rehearsal, at least at GCHS, can — and often does — run until 10 p.m.

Keith Long, father of cast member Savana Long, doing final work on the set.

As we conversed before rehearsal Monday afternoon, Humphrey intermittently had to raise his voice to be heard over the roar — not of the crowd, but of the buzzsaw. This amazed me: About 75 hours before the Thursday opening of the show, Thunder Heart Flooring owner Keith Long, the father of freshman cast member Savana Long, who plays a blues singer and seems destined to be GCHS’ leading lady the next three years, and student Jeremiah Bryant were working on the set.

Isn’t that cutting it close?

“This is a little further along than I expected,” Humphrey said. He laughed and added, “There are some things that won’t be in place until an hour before we open the doors.”

Raised in Southern California, Humphrey earned a degree in theater directing at Cal State Fullerton, moved to Colorado and did some acting and directing in the area before also getting an English degree. He taught at Fort Morgan High before coming to GCHS. He has been the theater teacher and director for six years, and his wife, Alisa, teaches at Greeley West.

Brian Davis and director Brion Humphrey go over notes during Monday rehearsal.

Humphrey said choosing “Barnum,” rarely done at the high school level, dates back to a year ago, and he announced the choice at the theatre banquet last spring. The first consideration, he said, was to look ahead and project the likely available cast and think of what might especially fit them.

“I had been thinking of some musicals from my past, and I wasn’t coming up with anything that I could tell was just right for this group,” he said. “Then I remembered that when I was a child, we would spend a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. There were two things they’d watch. One was ‘Barnum’ with Michael Crawford, and the other was the ‘Lawrence Welk Show.’ I thought it might be kind of fun to do a circus thing and for a long time I’d been wanting to do a carnival, and the two fit together.”

Crawford, the original Phantom of the Opera, starred in “Barnum” in London, and the show was taped and now is available on DVD. That was long before Hugh Jackman played Barnum in the separate 2017 film musical, “The Greatest Showman.”

Humphrey said he listened to the original Broadway cast recording of the “Barnum” sound track. “I realized I knew every word to every song,” he said. “I went back and watched (the DVD) again, and as I was watching it, I was able to plug in, ‘I know I have two people who can play this, I’ve got four who can do that,’ and once you start doing that, you’re drawn in.”

Auditions were the first week after Christmas break, and after the cast of 44 was assigned roles, the first read-through was Jan. 14. Following early rehearsals and blocking, Humphrey for two weeks stayed in the background as choreographer Cristy O’Connell-Black and choir and music teacher Rich Green worked with the cast. O’Connell-Black is the GCHS arts magnet program coordinator and teaches dance at the school.

The production, while not involving complicated classical choreography, is about organized, circus-like chaos, with aerialists, tumblers and contortionists. It’s a show within a show, and that’s a major challenge for a high school cast. It’s also democratic — little “d” — in the sense that much of the energetic troupe, of various ages and sizes, often is on the stage at any given time. That makes the energy contagious.

As January ended, rehearsals began in earnest.

Choreographer Cristy O’Connell-Black, with her back to the camera and in the white sweater, Monday goes over a scene with much of the “Barnum” cast.

By Monday, coming down the stretch, it was starting to look like a show. Davis and Shackley had settled into the leads. The high school version of the show doesn’t call for Davis to be as athletic as the professional Barnums, who had to walk on a tightrope, among other things. Yet Davis is on stage virtually the entire show. The role, with what can seem to be speed-reading, small-print ad type disclaimers as song lyrics, plus considerable dancing, is demanding. At a school with one of the the top high school wrestlers in the country, Andrew Alirez, Davis and other members of the cast illustrate that some of the athletes in a school don’t necessarily have to be in or around sports.

“This is a super integral part of my life,” Davis, 17, said. “Before second grade, I never spoke to anyone. I was the shyest guy in the world. I had a friend named Pete Boyle, and he was the funniest guy I’d ever met. He could make people laugh and I wanted to be just like him. So I tried out for my school talent show at Christa McAuliffe Elementary and I did a simple comedic monologue. Once I was done, I knew I had to keep doing it.”

Brian Davis at Monday rehearsals.

He has been in productions as part of the Stampede Troupe and at local dinner theaters. As a GCHS sophomore, he played Albert Peterson in “Bye Bye Birdie.” That’s the role Dick Van Dyke played in the movie, so Davis was far enough along to be at the top of the GCHS cast list for that show when he was barely old enough to drive. Last fall, he was a finalist in the performance competition at the Thespian convention in Denver and performed “Raise a Little Hell” from “Bonnie and Clyde” in front of 5,000 of his fellow students at the Bellco Theatre.

And now this.

“It’s a challenging role,” Davis said. “The only thing that rivals it is when I had to memorize Shakespeare for ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ This show is relentless. But I love it.”

He nodded at the construction still going on in front of him.

“It’s going to be crazy,” he said. “Any show, but this one especially, is a monstrous amount of work. I’m balancing (advanced placement) classes and my full schedule and trying to keep up with homework. I’ve found that in every single show, we get to this point and wonder, ‘There’s no way. We’re not going to make it!’ Yet every show, every time, we do. Once everybody starts putting their hands on deck, it comes together pretty quickly.”

I already was noticing that camaraderie among the cast and student crew. GCHS’ status as an arts magnet school — which means, for example, that Humphrey teaches an entire track of acting courses and he also has a theater tech class with students capable of helping out with the production — probably heightens that.

“This is kind of like a sport,” Davis said. “There’s a sense of community and a sense of home. It’s working together to create something, something truthful and meaningful, and to do that with other people that you love. I think that there are a lot of people in this troupe where maybe outside of the theater, maybe they’re not as accepted. But the theater’s always a place where they will be. And that’s a really awesome feeling.”

Jaeda Shackley before rehearsal.

Shackley was about to change into her costume to play Charity (for sticklers, that’s a slight renaming of the character from the Broadway production) Barnum at the rehearsals.

Like Davis, she is 17. Like Davis, she doesn’t look it. Her background initially was in music, and she was in the Greeley Children’s Chorale. As a second-grader, she auditioned for a dinner theater production of “Annie.”

“My mom (Nicole) said, ‘So you know, Jaeda, it’s really competitive, I don’t know if you’ll get in,'” Shackley said. “I got in, and I played Kate, one of the orphans, and I had so much fun.”

The acting bug had bitten.

At GCHS, she played a stepsister in “Cinderella” as a sophomore and then Mae Peterson in “Bye Bye Birdie” as a junior.

Brian Davis and Jaeda Shackley. (Photo by Felisha Brower)

“This is the way I express myself,” she said. “It’s always been such a constant in my life. It’s a home for me. Every night since I’ve been in high school, it’s been, ‘I have theater rehearsal from 7 to 10 tonight.’ It’s a community. I’ve found my support system and found my love through theater.”

From 6 to 7 Monday night, O’Connell-Black ran the cast through some final choreography touches on a couple of scenes, both watching from the seats and then joining the cast on stage. Finally, at 6:57, she told all to take a break, and after microphone and sound checks, a full run-through began. It was short of a dress rehearsal, because there were periodic, but very brief, breaks for corrections and direction, but it was getting close to what it would look like on opening night.

At 10, they were done. Rather than painstakingly go over the notes he had taken on his laptop, Brion Humphrey said good night, but reminded the cast to check the GCHS Thespian Troupe 657 Facebook page for the notes. They were extensive, mostly positive and encouraging, but full of suggestions for final details and improvement.

Two hours before the show starts on Opening Night, Brion Humphrey explains the ritual of hanging the poster in the theatre lobby.

After two more nights of rehearsals, Opening Night arrived. Amid the final preparations after the school day, Humphrey picked up a picture mat that the entire cast and crew had signed and placed it around a GCHS Barnum poster, then put the mat and poster in a frame.

At 4:30, a few seniors went with him to the lobby. They picked out a spot to hang the poster amid those from past shows. Humphrey moved his ladder to that spot and drilled preliminary holes for the screws. Then the entire cast and crew, most wearing yellow production T-shirts with all their names on them, joined them in the lobby at 5.

Humphrey stood part of the way up the ladder and faced them, showing the poster.

“Think back to how much you have put into this process and all of the good times, all of the trying times, everything that goes into putting on a show,” he said. “It all comes down to this. This whole thing could not be done without the talents and the individual efforts of every single person here.

“Once this poster goes up, the show is yours. I will take a step back. I’ll still do all of my stuff to make sure you’re in place and you have what you need from me, but the show belongs to you.”

He noted that the program would be attached to the back of the frame and it would be part of history.

Senior Irene Gabriel, already in clown costume, takes her turn in the hanging of the “Barnum” poster.

The seniors took turns stepping onto the ladder, taking the screwdriver and giving it a few twists. It was a raucous celebration.

Humphrey took all to the back doors, past the music rooms. They went outside. He explained that in the theater traditional superstition, they could mention the play “MacBeth,” only outside the theater, and he dared to mention in there. Then he said the other step to ward off ill fortune was to jump and twist in a full rotation counterclockwise, say a word of their choosing and spit on the ground. Three times. He turned to his 6-year-old son, Idan, who briefly is in the show as Tom Thumb, and asked what word he was going to say.

“Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!” Idan said.

“Good,” his father said. “You use that one.”

Raucously, they did as Humphrey suggested.

Outside the school’s back doors, Brion Humphrey and son Idan, who plays Tom Thumb in one scene, face the cast and crew of “Barnum.” They’re all about to try to fend off the “MacBeth” curse.

Then Humphrey said they could only return to the theater if invited — and immediately issued the invitation.

Clearly, all of this served to ease the tension and combat opening-night jitters.

It worked.

Back in the theater, the actors went through microphone checks as the final minutes counted down to the 6:30 p.m. opening of the doors.

Sound and microphone check: Jaeda Shackley and Lucas Moir (Tom Thumb).

As a prologue to the show, Kyria Smith, as a lecturer, recited facts about Barnum for the early arrivals in the seats.

Then the house lights went down.

It was Showtime.

Amid the hallway celebration after the show, Davis hugged his leading lady, Shackley. Again.

“I think it went great,” Davis said. “I think it was an awesome opening night, for sure. Even if some stuff wasn’t perfect, that’s the magic of theater.”

At that point, they had five performances to go.

“I think this was one of our best runs,” said an ecstatic Shackley. “There’s always room for improvement. Every day, everyone’s learning new things about our show and things they can do. Every time we do it, we get better.”

Brion Humphrey’s review was thumbs-up, too.

“It went really well,” he said. “I think this is my favorite one. It was different, it was outside the box. It was easy, relatively speaking, because the kids went all in. I think it shows. I’m very proud of them.”

Similar scripts were playing out at high schools from coast to coast.


Freshman Savana Long as the Blues Singer. (Photo by Felisha Brower.)
Kayla Brower, as Jenny Lind, with Brian Davis. (Photo by Felisha Brower.)
Charmaynae Johns, as “160-year-old” Joice Heth, with Brian Davis. (Photo by Felisha Brower.)
There’s a lot of traffic on the stage — and above it — in GCHS’ “Barnum.” (Photo by Felisha Brower.