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"Hamilton" inspires student performances at Fisher Theatre

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusc on Twitter

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DETROIT -- "Hamilton: An American Musical" was "a big thing" for Carl Victory -- a major part of the reason why the Warren Consolidated School of Performing Arts senior will be pursuing a theater degree at Wayne State University this fall and, hopefully, a career on stage.

But Victory, 17, had never seen "Hamilton," until Thursday, April 11. And the experience was more than he ever imagined.

Victory was one of 29 students from 13 Michigan high schools who took part in the Fisher Theatre as part of the Hamilton Education Program -- EduHam for short. The solo, duo and trio troupes each created a song, rap or spoken word piece inspired by "Hamilton" and that period of history and put them on stage Thursday morning before more than 1,500 other students, plus chaperones -- an enthusiastic crowd that loudly cheered on all of the performances, smooth or rough.

"Going from someone who admires the show and admires the theater and is part of theater myself, thinking I could stand on the stage one day or have a chance to be there, that was amazing for me," Victory -- who fluidly delivered a rap based on the colonial slavery debate with classmate Joshua Sowers -- said afterwards.

"Walking in the stage door of the Fisher and being backstage and thinking about what I was actually here to do besides just seeing the show, that was a moment to me."

Sowers, 17, said that "there were a lot of jitters" leading up to the duo's performance, but "as soon as they announced our name and I stopped out and just saw a sea of darkness, it was like a wash coming over me that knowing I couldn't see anyone, we'd be fine."

Thursday's session, hosted by "Hamilton" cast member Olivia Puckett, featured schools from Detroit as well as Hazel Park High School, Advanced Technological Academy in Dearborn and outstate entries from New Haven, Bay City, Eben Junction, Eau Claire and elsewhere. They ranged from single-performer poems to trio numbers -- such as the Davis Aerospace Technical High School's Abigail Adams rap set to the theme from "The Fresh Prince of Bel Aire," Hazel Park's number about the Constitutional Convention and a "King George Rap" by Detroit Community High School that was so catchy Puckett reprised some of it afterwards.

"I was pretty inspired," Puckett, who was hosting her first EduHam session, said. "As a high schooler I would have been pretty terrified to get on stage and performing something original, and they all did it with such grace and talent and poise. It was awesome. They all killed it."

Puckett also took it upon herself to help calm the young performers before they went on. "I checked in to see if they were nervous, and they were all a little nervous," she said. "I told them I would take their nerves from them because I was nervous too. I just reassured them we're her to support them and not judge them. We mess up on stage all the time ourselves."

Besides emceeing the EduHam show, Puckett also hosted a 25-minute Q&A session with other cast members, including Edred Utomi, who portrays Alexander Hamilton, and University of Michigan alumnus Dan Belnavis, who's part of the ensemble. They spoke about their careers, their first theater productions, show day routines and other roles they'd like to play in "Hamilton" -- all six, interestingly, chose characters of other genders. Utomi told the students he never tires of playing Hamilton and that his favorite song "kinda changes, depending on my mood."

Utomi also corrected himself after noting, in front of a student crowd, that he "never liked school." "I like some school," he said with a smile. "Stay in school."

The "Hamilton" organization launched EduHam during the spring of 2016 as a partnership between the production and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Jeffrey Sellers, "Hamilton's" producer and an Oak Park, Mich., native, says that the program is "one of the things I'm proudest about for the show. We raised $25 million to support this program serving 250,000 kids across America over four years." Among those funding the Detroit EduHam were the Max & Marjorie Fisher Foundation and Eminem's Marshall Mathers Foundation.

A second EduHam session takes place on April 27, including Southfield High School for the Arts and Technology and Macomb County Juvenile Justice Center School. "Hamilton," meanwhile, runs through April 21 at the Fisher. Tickets are available on a limited basis, and a lottery for 40 $10 tickets is held two days before each performance. 313-872-1000, broadwayindetroit.com or hamiltonmusical.com.

Web Site: www.hamiltonmusical.com

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