The highlight of my sophomore year in high school was performing in our drama club’s production of “Godspell.”
In the role of Gilmer, I got to sing the quick little ditty “Learn Your Lessons Well.” The song is barely a minute and a half long, but those 90 seconds meant the world to a teenager who was always insecure about her singing voice. It was the first and only time I sang a full song solo on stage. I’ll never forget the exhilaration of conquering that fear, and hearing my dad, a musician, tell me I sounded good.
While “Godspell” wasn’t the only show I performed in high school, it’s the experience I hold closest to my heart. And even now, nearly 11 years after that production, I still wonder what it would be like to see my castmates again and do the show just one more time.
The Disney+ series “Encore!” is an answer to that common musing. Produced by Kristin Bell, the show reunites high school theater casts of yesteryear from schools across the country to learn and perform their show one more time.
I’ve been parsing out the episodes throughout quarantine when my mood needs a boost. It has an element of escapism — fully immersing you for a full hour — yet still is rooted in humanity and connection, something we need more than ever these days.
It’s been scratching my itch for live performance, too, as our theaters remain closed due to COVID-19. While you should still be watching productions and donating to our local theaters so they may still exist when it’s safe for them to reopen, let “Encore!” serve as supplemental viewing to soothe your thespian soul.
“Encore!” has all the entertaining elements you’d expect: seeing unpracticed performers fumble through and later conquer challenging choreography, hearing their voices develop with the help of coaches over just a few days, and seeing the magic come together when it’s showtime.
But even more riveting are the interpersonal connections between the castmates. The reunions remind the performers of old flames, rekindle friendships that have waned with the distance of time and even remind participants of the emotional place they were in when the show originally was staged.
Take the “High School Musical” episode, for instance, which reunited a cast from 2007. The woman who was cast as Gabriella, the female lead, never got to perform due to a devastating softball injury just a week before the performance. An understudy stepped in, but always felt guilty for stealing the spotlight. Seeing her finally get to live out the role made me think of all the high school performers who didn’t get to perform this year due to the coronavirus. May they also get a chance at closure the way this cast did.
I even got my fiance — a former stage crew member who isn’t much of a theatergoer these days — to watch the “Sound of Music” episode with me. The cast from 1992 had some of the best offstage drama I’ve seen yet on the show, including two very flirty old friends who acted like teenagers when they reunited. Both of us were completely captivated the entire episode.
Perhaps my favorite episode of all is “Anything Goes,” which reunited a Los Angeles High School cast from 1975. There were so many things to love: an all-Black cast doing a show traditionally performed by white actors, a slew of talented vocalists, and the common tie of a fantastic sense of humor that makes you fall in love with the entire group. (I particularly enjoyed watching this episode with my mom, who is the age of some of the performers.)
I’d be remiss not to mention Lancaster’s local connection to the show, too. Jordon Ross Weinhold, who is active as a director, composer and performer with Ephrata Performing Arts Center, worked on the “Oklahoma!” episode.
Naturally, watching “Encore!” has got me thinking about my “Godspell” cast, especially during an episode that reunited a cast to do that very show. One former castmate is on staff at a major Florida university. Another is a merchandising director, another a hair stylist. And at least one became a journalist.
But for a few months in 2009, we were just a group of teens having fun and working hard to put on the best show we possibly could. And who wouldn’t want to revisit that?
Jenelle Janci is LNP | LancasterOnline’s Life & Culture team leader. “Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.