ST. CHARLES – A story vast and compelling will traverse time, geography, culture and language.
It begins in a seedy, prewar Berlin bar. There’s a stop in 1800s France, plus a glimpse of colonial America and return visits during the 1920s, 1960s, 1990s and today. It hits a Dublin pub, a Bangkok palace, fictional Arthurian England.
The story is told with powerful music from the last two-thirds of a century and, starting June 21, audience members can go along for the ride. Welcome to “Best of the Best: Evolution of Broadway,” which runs through June 24 at Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles.
"Best of the Best" is a new, cabaret-style revue produced by SBT’s Youth Stage program. The Saturday matinee is open to everyone but is designed to be sensory friendly, meaning lighting and sound will be diminished to better accommodate audience members with sensory sensitivity.
The show’s title is not hyperbole: all songs performed are from productions that won the Tony Award for best musical between 1954 and 2017.
"Best of the Best" is the third collaboration of director Noah Bailey, music director Joelle Kasprisin and choreographer Andrew Harper. During the past year, the three also produced successful runs of “Disney’s High School Musical Jr.” and “Legally Blonde The Musical Jr.”
To say Steel Beam has raised the youth theater bar is an understatement. The 13 cast members, ranging in age from 10 to 20, perform songs, dances and costume changes that cover multiple genres and illuminate big social themes. A few songs are also partly in German, Spanish, French and American Sign Language. There are no leads because most cast members lead the show at some point. The cast wrote its own, minimalist script and the choreography is original.
A sampling of shows represented in three categories of musical theater includes those deemed classic – “Cabaret,” “Guys and Dolls,” “South Pacific” and “The King and I”; comedic – “Spamalot”; and modern – “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Billy Elliot.”
The biggest challenge has been the “sheer grandiosity” of the show itself, Bailey said.
“We’re doing 22 numbers that are each iconic and show-stopping, so that was intimidating," Bailey said. "We have to do ‘Hamilton’ justice; we have to do a lot of really popular musicals justice.”
Young performers navigating adult themes was also a challenge.
“We cover some controversial topics,” Bailey said. “We talk about feminism, we talk about race, we talk about disease. We talk about poverty, social status, immigrants. Things like that that can sometimes make people a little bit uncomfortable.”
For Bailey and Kasprisin, working with young people is about pedagogy as well as performance.
“The other side of that is working with this age – 10 to 20,” Kasprisin said. “These voices are not developed, and so we’re making adjustments to make sure the students are not hurting themselves, that they’re using the proper techniques. We are doing the shows and the scenes justice while also keeping in mind the ages of students we’re working with.”
Then there’s the issue of dance, which was another unique challenge.
“There’s so many different styles of dance because we’re not doing one show that’s just one style,” Kasprisin said. “We’re doing ‘The King and I’ which has waltz in it. We’re doing ‘Hairspray,’ which has that teeny bopper, exciting, fun, ‘60s dancing, and then we have ‘Helpless,’ from ‘Hamilton,’ which has these hip-hop, fun, getting down and dirty moves, [so] the kids get to learn all these different kinds to dance too.”
Youth theater is a side-job labor of love for all three. Bailey is a burgeoning TV and movie actor. Kasprisin, a vocalist, performer and director, is a trained school social worker. Harper, who also performs in “Best of the Best,” is pursuing a degree in musical theater.
But despite the enormity of the undertaking, "Best of the Best" has been worth the effort, the directors agree.
“The beautiful thing about theater,” Bailey said, is that it “addresses important subjects head on in a comfortable way through singing and dancing and acting, and it doesn’t make the audience uncomfortable when they’re watching.”
Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University.
If you go
WHAT: “Best of the Best: Evolution of Broadway”
WHEN: 7 p.m. June 21 and 22; 2 and 7 p.m. June 23; and 2 p.m. June 24
WHERE: Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles
COST: $12 for minors and $17 for adults
INFO: steelbeamtheatre.com, 630-587-8521