Students at St. Vincent Pallotti High School's Arts Academy are flying high on wings of inspiration as they prepare to perform in a jazz operetta at Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University on Nov. 18 and 19.
Directed by Dwight R.B. Cook and written in Broadway-style by New York actor James Rich, "There Was A Boy" tells the story of Nat King Cole (1919-1965), a jazz pianist and singer and the first African American to host a national television variety show, "The Nat King Cole Show," which aired from 1956-57.
Rich, 52, who plays the role of Cole, said he grew up listening to the Jacksons, Earth Wind and Fire and Chaka Kahn, but remembers when Cole died.
The actor bears a striking resemblance to Cole, the son of a Baptist preacher who wanted to see the world and longed for his father's approval. Rich said portraying Cole in his operetta at Morgan "feels like performing with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra."
"Actors are always looking for that perfect role; for me this is the role I've been wanting to play," he said. The play "tells a really beautiful and universal story."
The Pallotti student performers — Amanda Huff, Bryan Schmidt, Robert Collin Atkins and Francis Picado — had to formally audition and have been rehearsing with Rich on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school. They sing in the opera's chorus and have various roles, such as a shoe shiner and bartender.
Huff, 15, a soprano, said the rehearsals have been a "life-changing experience," and Schmidt, 16, a baritone, said he loves "hanging out with the Morgan students who act like our big brothers and sisters."
Atkins, 17, a baritone and mid-tenor said the Morgan students have shared tips.
"My vocal range has completely improved from this whole experience," he said.
Pallotti Principal Jeff Palumbo said the high school students' participation in a competitive arts program at the university level is "an incredible opportunity for our kids; it gives them an opportunity to see the next level to which they all aspire."
One of Pallotti's vocal instructors, Christopher Chappelle, 25, a graduate of both Pallotti and Morgan, drives the kids to rehearsals in Baltimore and also performs in the ensemble.
Kelly Young, associate choral director at Pallotti, said that she is pleased with the progress the Pallotti kids are making.
"I think the project is a discovery for them," she said. "The demands and pace of the rehearsals is on an upward trajectory as far as what our students will experience in the professional theater world."
Vincent Stringer, director of opera studies at Morgan, said he hopes the positive experience will encourage the Pallotti students to apply there.
"I've been getting reports that they're doing great," he said.
Stringer said he's been involved in a number of new projects and is an "advocate for new music."
"When James introduced me to his work, I started thinking about Nat King Cole's connection to Morgan," Stringer said.
The year before Cole died, in 1964, Morgan State University awarded the musician an honorary doctorate. Fifty years later, in 2014, "There Was A Boy" was first performed as a stage reading at the Murphy Fine Arts Center to standing ovations, according to Rich.
Saunders Allen, chairman of the Fine Arts Department at Pallotti, said the high school's involvement in the project "grew organically through our professional discussions."
Pallotti visual arts teacher Alan Ernstein, recruited by Allen to be the show's set designer, said he "enjoyed putting together a background for the show."
Allen and Young also reached out to Pallotti alumni Elyssa Atkins, 19, Nicole Woody, 21, and Bryan Tinker, 34, who all perform in the show.
Choreographer and Pallotti pompom and dance team coach Eucrita Willis, 46, said she became involved "through wonderful Mr. Allen," and that the music brings her to tears.
"It was a beautiful thing how this happened, like it was all supposed to be," she said.
The operetta's name comes from the first line of "Nature Boy," a simple but profound song written by Eden Ahbez that Cole recorded with Capitol Records in 1948. Rich performed the song at the Metropolitan Room in New York City in January.
Other cast favorites that will be performed, along with many other numbers, include "Almost Like Being In Love," "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and "Day In, Day Out."
"Nat King Cole was known for his black satin hair, piano key smile and silky smooth voice," Rich said. "But no one ever told the story of the human being behind that image in this format before."