Grand Theatre’s High School Project version of Evita will change the lives of its young performers, says theatre’s executive director

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They are lines that could apply to the political situation south of the border as it unfolds today: “Instead of government, we had a stage/Instead of ideas, we had a prima donna’s rage.”

But those words — sung by a chorus of more than 40 high-school students over lunchtime Wednesday in Victoria Park to drum up publicity for the Grand Theatre’s High School Project — are from Evita, the venerable piece of musical theatre inspired by Eva Peron, the first lady of Argentina from 1946 to 1952.

The show runs Sept. 19 to 30, with its opening night Sept. 22. Except for the teens on stage, everything about the production is the same as any other Grand show.

“It’s the same as a professional production,” said the theatre’s executive director, Deb Harvey. “It changes their lives. I know it sounds hokey. It transforms their lives.”

One life that is being changed is that of Keith Ssemugenyi, who is going into Grade 11 at Beal secondary school. The production draws students from both the Thames Valley District School Board, as well as the London District Catholic School Board

Behind aviator sunglasses, standing under the wrought-iron gate that welcomes Londoners to the park, it’s easy to see how Ssemugenyi has real stage presence, even at such a young age. He says he likes how musical theatre combines emotion and music.

Keith Ssemugenyi of Beal sings the role of Che in the Grand Theatre’s high school production of Evita during a short open-air concert at the entrance to Victoria Park on Wednesday. (MIKE HENSEN, The London Free Press)

“I’m very musical,” he said. “I love learning, finding out how to make new things.”

Ssemugenyi got his start in theatre with last year’s High School Project production of Les Miserables. He was unsure at first, because theatre kids have a reputation of thinking of themselves as the “top of the top” of the student body.

However, once he auditioned, he was blown away by how welcoming everyone was. “I had a blast in that,” he said. “I learned a lot about theatre.’

The young man’s family came to London from Uganda when he was five. He loves the visual arts, but that doesn’t completely satisfy his hunger to be creative. “Theatre is using everything,” he said.

Ssemugenyi led the students in their 20-minute lunch performance. About 150 curious onlookers stopped to share in the moment.

“It’s a nice lunchtime thing. We like to try to do a little publicity event to raise awareness,” said Grand spokesperson Kate Rapson, who was rounding up passersby to take in the short spectacle, dangling the treat of classical theatre music to hook them in.

What was on offer was “a little taste of the work we’ve been doing in the performance hall” explained director Jan Alexandra Smith.

Clad in black hoodies, the students blew away the crowd.

The performance wasn’t just “good for a bunch of students,” it was compelling, period.

What’s surprising is how the youngsters relate to a piece of theatre with such mature themes:

Sing you fools, but you got it wrong, enjoy your prayers because you haven’t got long/

Your queen is dead, your king is through, and she’s not coming back to you.

It probably doesn’t hurt that the show is being mounted in the age of Donald Trump, when a larger-than-life political figure has captured the world’s imagination — much as Eva Peron did.

Evita represents the 21st year for the High School Project.

It also represents a partnership with the Sheridan College Music Theatre Program, which some of the students may choose to attend upon completion of high school.

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What: Evita, a Grand Theatre High School Project production

Where: The Grand Theatre, 471 Richmond St.

When: Sept. 19-30

Tickets: $40 for A seats, $35 for B seats


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