Los Angeles Theater Feature: RUBY LAPEYRE (now in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at Morgan-Wixson)

by Jason Rohrer on December 15, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles

Post image for Los Angeles Theater Feature: RUBY LAPEYRE (now in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at Morgan-Wixson)

THOROUGHLY THESPIAN

Youth theater is mostly musicals, and many musicals are essentially infantilizing entertainments, most appropriate to teaching children how to perform. The kids themselves make up for a lot that I find unforgivable in book and music. In many kids’ shows half the cast can be expected not to have the choreography down pat, and you won’t be able to hear some of the solos, and every show or two somebody will forget his lines and everybody will rush to try and fix the hole that just opened onstage…or not; sometimes that hole will just grow to envelop the scene until a hoarse voice from offstage supplies the patch. That’s edge-of-your-seat theater.

But the real glory of attending youth theater is that you have a good chance of seeing pigs fly, which is why I go to any theater at all. There’s a lot of value-added weirdness to many kids’ shows. Casting is often gender-fluid, and stretches boundaries otherwise, too: Once, I watched Mamma Mia, the sort of jukebox musical I have done backflips to avoid an adult production of; and in that kids’ version, a 12-year-old girl spent the show trying to figure out which of three 12-year-old boys had fathered her child. You can’t get that kind of audience discomfort at a show full of grown-ups.

In the Santa Monica Theatre Guild’s Youth Education/Entertainment Series (Y.E.S.) production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, which closes its run at the Morgan-Wixson this coming Saturday, you can see kids in yellowface singing “Mammy,” a song Al Jolson sang in blackface. As horrifying as that would be in a grown-up show, consider that in the adult version of this Richard Morris/Dick Scanlon/Jeanine Tesori Tony-winner, even if you cast Chinese guys as the Chinese guys, it’s still a show that features a disguised non-Asian villain whose stereotype accent and gesture is the character’s central joke. As a traditional enemy of casting limitations on actors of any race, I found myself in the Thoroughly Modern Millie audience doing some strenuous reconsidering.

At any rate, it’s an excellent show. Anne Gesling directs about thirty kids into a remarkable semblance of order, and Lauren Blair choreographs them through various dance numbers, including tap, that did what they were supposed to do, which was to remind me of my age and decrepitude. William Wilday’s technical direction keeps things safe and good-looking, and stage manager Larry Gesling (Anne’s husband) somehow maneuvers over two dozen children through numerous dark scene changes. Daniel Koh’s musical direction gets a lot out of some very strong singers, including Zoe D’Andrea and Anilee List.

But I came to see Ruby Lapeyre. I’ve seen Ruby in over a dozen musicals in the last five years, since she was 8 or 9. She’s sung and danced in around thirty shows now. She’s good at it, and she keeps getting better. It is instructive to see another person learn to work hard, to practice and sacrifice and grow. And there is nothing as delightful to watch as someone have a good time. But it is scary when a kid you know turns out to be a theater person. Ruby lives in Venice, so of course her parents have show-business friends, and I can’t say any of us have been all that useful at discouraging her interest in theater. Enabling a young person’s vices is a moral quandary if you’re not the grandparents. I feel a little guilty.

Up to now, we’ve been supporting a fairly low-impact agenda. Most of Ruby’s shows have been the culmination of class work, performed in school cafeterias or black boxes rented by the hour, the sort of show only relatives are expected to come and see, except better because, usually, Chad Scheppner directed them. Chad’s Theatre 31 provides an extraordinary extra-curricular resource at (among many others) Coeur d’Alene Elementary, where Ruby met him. He has certainly helped Ruby grow into a poised performer. So has her training at the Los Angeles Performing Arts Conservatory. I asked Ruby about what she’d gotten out of all that work.

ruby-lapeyre“With Chad you learn to go out of your comfort zone,” she says. “We do a lot of improv, and Chad’s all about teaching you instead of making it about the show. He makes sure you learn to take risks. At the  Conservatory, my acting teachers taught me about the actor’s tool box and the basics of what you need to know about theater, but Chad taught me how to do it.”

In workshop shows at school and at the Electric Lodge, Ruby spent years working her way up from chorus to featured bits to leads. She became a reliable fixture, and her penchant for puppetry found its way into a number of Theatre 31 musicals. But Ruby’s moving up. She’s done Orson Bean’s Christmas Carol, and now she’s doing Thoroughly Modern Millie at a real theater with a fly rail and a proscenium and 200 seats. No longer a big fish, she’s starting out at Y.E.S. in a small part in a big show with sets and costumes and many kids who have worked at this theater for a decade. Was that intimidating?

“I was really shy in the beginning,” Ruby says. “I’m the only 8th grader, and there’s a lot of high schoolers in the show, a few 7th graders, one 5th grader. I only knew one person and she was older than me. But there are a lot of newbies, too, and if you’re in theater, you already know how talk to people.”

That’s not entirely my experience, as a theater person or an arts journalist, but hey.

A lot of good actors hate and fear the audition process, and director Gesling told me about 60 kids auditioned for less than half that many roles, so I asked Ruby what it was like doing a big audition for the first time?

“I didn’t know what to expect. At the first audition we sang and did dance combinations. They put us in groups of three, and nobody wanted to go to the front. I wanted to move to the back because I was nervous, but I went to the front anyway.”

And she got called back, both of which are signs she might be in the right business. “Lauren the choreographer teaches really well,” Ruby says, “and even though a lot of the boys didn’t have that much dance experience, she was always kind and informative. The callback was for character. I wanted to be a Priscilla girl [one of the boarding-house denizens who pals around with the lead], so we had 15 or 20 people trying out for five parts. They gave us a scene and a description of each character, we performed, and then they called us back up to do another character.”

Ruby got to play a Priscilla girl; in fact, Emma Peas is the first one to be drugged and sold into white slavery – it’s a kids’ show, remember? – which frees Ruby up to dance in some chorus numbers. “I was prepared to do tap, but a lot of kids had more experience. So the partner dancing was new to me.”

It didn’t look like it from where I sat. The dancing looked like what it was: the product of Ruby’s longest rehearsal period by far, about two months. What motivated her to want to do the 21st annual Y.E.S. musical?

“I’d loved shows I’d seen at the Morgan-Wixson, like Beauty and the Beast and Schoolhouse Rock. I was going to audition for Frog and Toad but I got sick, so I started checking the website periodically. I wanted to do a show I was familiar with. I was a big Sutton Foster fan, and Thoroughly Modern Millie won best musical the year I was born. I went on YouTube and watched the whole show that someone videoed, and I loved the music and the tapping. So I signed up to audition.”

That’s what actors do. It’s worrisome, because I really like Ruby. And I really like her younger sister Kali, who seems to have outgrown her own need to sing and dance in shows. Smart Kali. Wise Kali. There appears little chance that Ruby will go the same way anytime soon. She has these words of advice for people in her position, who just can’t bring themselves to stop:

“Go out on a limb. Don’t be afraid to try something new, especially during the rehearsal process. Make sure to pay attention to everything: Be aware of your surroundings and still have fun. You shouldn’t be focusing only on your performance. We’re goofing off all the time backstage but we don’t miss our cues and set changes…for the most part.”

I know actors five times Ruby’s age who can’t say that. Now this hobby can be said to have gone beyond a joke to a serious crisis. Pretty soon she’s going to want to get paid.

“My friend’s mom is an agent. I did an internship with her to find out what she does, and now I want to do more auditions.”

Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but follow your heart.

Sigh.

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Thoroughly Modern Millie
Morgan-Wixson Theatre
2627 Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica
ends on December 17, 2016
for tickets and info, visit Morgan-Wixson

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