While the enforced isolation of these past two years of COVID has been stressful on everyone except for the most committed of hermits, high school thespians have had a particularly strange time of it. It’s extremely difficult to put on a play standing six feet apart, or to sing and dance vigorously without breathing all over one another. For the Drama Club kids who are now juniors and seniors at New Paltz High, the last school musical they were able to perform in “normally” was Newsies in the spring of 2019; freshmen and sophomores have never had that opportunity at all. The Secret Garden was abruptly canceled in the spring of 2020, and last year’s production of Into the Woods required a kiss through a sheet of plexiglass and the tossing of a doll representing a live baby from one character to another.
So, it’s a great relief to these talented young people to be able once more to get up onstage and put on a barrier-free performance, as they prepare to present The Theory of Relativity by Neil Bartram and Brian Hill from March 31 through April 2 at the New Paltz High School (NPHS) auditorium. “The kids are extremely excited,” says Nancy Owen, Drama Club advisor and director of The Theory of Relativity. “There are a few who are going to be wearing masks for various health reasons, but it will be so nice not trying to amplify with our mics through masks.”
A large part of the reason why Owen selected this work to be the spring musical is how pertinent its message is to young people who have been forcibly disconnected socially by the pandemic. “Even though this show was written before COVID, I feel like it was written about COVID,” says freshman Marco Todaro. “The characters move from loneliness to a sense of accomplishment by the end.” “They wanted us to do something that brought us all together,” agrees Anna Adams, a senior. “The meaning of the song ties in with what we’re going through right now,” says freshman Emily Bishop.
An article by Nicole Rosky in Broadway World from November 2020, when Broadway had gone utterly dark, reported that The Theory of Relativity then held the top spot in the list of trending shows published by theatrical licensor Music Theatre International (MTI). “Since the pandemic began in March…shows that are able to be streamed and performed remotely have become more appealing to customers looking for different ways to safely produce musicals in the era of social distancing. This has led to high quality, lesser-known shows that didn’t necessarily have a Broadway run getting their turn in the spotlight,” Rosky wrote. “Through a seemingly unrelated collection of songs, scenes and monologues, The Theory of Relativity introduces a compelling array of characters experiencing the joys and heartbreaks, the liaisons and losses, the inevitability and the wonder of human connection…structured to feature a series of character-based vignettes, easily produced in a minimally, modular way.” She quoted MTI president/CEO Drew Cohen saying, “Clearly the current circumstances have amplified the show’s message and its awareness.”
So this play, with its core theme of rediscovered human interconnectedness, seemed sure to prove a winner for the high schoolers, even if it needed to be seen remotely. And indeed, when rehearsals began in January, the omicron variant was still surging, and it wasn’t yet known how exactly it would be performed. The Theory of Relativity was a relatively safe choice in that it requires very little in the way of scenery, props and costumes. The characters are contemporary youth and mainly appear in normal street clothes. The entire cast sits in a semicircle throughout the entire play, with no set changes. All the backstage group craft activities that go into creating onstage magic were thus kept to a minimum, with lighting playing a more important role than usual to set the scene.
Cast members were unanimous in their praise of Nicole Foti, NPHS choir director and the music director for The Theory of Relativity. The play includes 20 songs in varying musical styles, five of them ensemble numbers. “The show is a bunch of stories about people going through different things in life, but it all comes together in the end,” says senior Melissa Cino. “They’re talking about how everyone’s connected and how everything you do affects everyone,” adds Adams. “Each of the songs in the show is its own individual story, in a way,” explains sophomore Nicholas Kutzin. So, is it fair to say that the narrative structure follows the format first popularized in A Chorus Line? “It’s like that, but with a lot less dancing,” observes senior Solo Diedhiou dryly. “You’re storytelling through your song.”
While there were plenty of glitches during the practice period, and few rehearsals where everyone was well enough to attend, it all finally came together, with the bonus that the performers won’t need those annoying clear plastic shields that made last year’s production possible. Sophomore Ana Kirsch expresses her relief at “being able to just breathe and talk to people, and not be in a little plastic box.”
Solo calls this show “a big deal” for graduating NPHS seniors. “This is the last thing that we’re doing. It’s nice to be able to end with something we feel good about.”
Performances of The Theory of Relativity at the New Paltz High School auditorium will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, March 31 and April 1, and at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 2.