By Tracy Rasmussen
Ten years ago, a close-knit cast of Berks County kids sang out on stage that fame would make them "live forever." Starting this weekend, a new group of local youngsters - and some adults - will take another shot at "Fame" as Reading Community Players brings the hit musical to its stage.
Hope O'Pake, who played Mrs. Sherwood in the original Reading Community Players production of "Fame" in 2001, will be reprising that role in addition to directing the show, which has performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 7.
O'Pake said she originally signed on only to direct the show but was soon convinced to reprise the role of Mrs. Sherwood, the English teacher who oversees the academic progress of the students at the New York City High School for Performing Arts around whom the play's plot swirls.
"To this day, 'Fame' remains one of the most special theatrical and personal experiences I've had," O'Pake said. "It was a thrill to be a part of it, and then having the chance to direct it. I signed on board!"
Shortly thereafter, it was suggested that she portray Mrs. Sherwood again.
"I loved the role 10 years ago," she said. "And someone wisely told me to imagine what it would mean to me now that those 10 years would give me a whole new understanding of the role. That was spot on, and I have enjoyed every minute of this production. Ten years ago, I understood her. Now, I relate to her."
O'Pake is splitting her directing duties with Josh Austin and has jumped into both roles.
O'Pake said it was difficult to put together a play that was so beautifully directed by Ed and Carol Butler a decade ago, but there have been changes to put her own stamp on it.
"Some things are very similar," she said. "Carol and Ed did an amazing job with it. But we didn't want to just duplicate the show. We did want to re-create the experience, though."
So, the set is similar, the roles are similar and O'Pake re-created the student mentor program with the actors.
Other participants returning from the previous production include James Barksdale, who was an ensemble cast member in 2001 and will portray Leroy Johnson this year, and Amanda Guistwite, who played Hilary Van Doren in 2001and is this year's choreographer.
The entire cast from 2001 has been invited to a reunion during the final show, and it's planned they will sing the finale song with the current cast. Proceeds from some of the performances will benefit the Liz Martelli scholarship fund at Reading High School, and some of her poetry will be read before that last show, too.
"It's going to be a big day," O'Pake said.
O'Pake said one of the ways the current production differs from the previous one is the time element.
"In 2001 it was set in 2001, but we've set this in 1980 (the original time frame of the story)," she said. "We've been giving the girls tips on how to make their hair big."
So many of the issues facing the students in the show - teen pregnancy, homosexuality, suicide, drug use - resonate with today's youth, too, she said. Because of these sensitive themes, "Fame" is not considered a children's show.
"These are typical teen issues," O'Pake said. "They were issues then, and they are issues now."
O'Pake said that one of the most satisfying aspects of the show is how the cast of 40 has bonded, similarly to the show that she was in 10 years ago.
"The bonding between all of us has made it much easier for them to create and develop their characters," she said. "This is such a hodgepodge of kids from different schools and a variety of backgrounds, and we hear them say things like that they are so fortunate to be in this show because they are meeting people they probably wouldn't have met. It's really so awesome to see this group develop."
It's especially important because the bonding mirrors the experiences of the characters who come from all areas of New York City to audition for a spot at the New York City High School for Performing Arts and throughout their four years of high school find ways to bond and forge relationships in the midst of typical teenage angst.
"Three or four rehearsals into it, I felt that same excitement - that same bonding, that same closeness," O'Pake said. "I think that will make a very successful show."
The Reading Community Players playhouse is located 403 N. 11th St., and tickets range from $8 to $15.
For information and to purchase tickets, visit the Reading Community Players website at www.readingcommunityplayers.com.
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