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Meet The ‘Big Kids’ by Joel Markowitz

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As Big, The Musical-TYA concludes its run this weekend at Adventure Theatre-MTC, I had a chance to interview the five talented young members of the cast:  Brendan DeBonis, Marley McKay, Maya Brettell, Emma Sophie Moore, and Talia Brenner.

Brendan DeBonis.

Brendan: My name is Brendan DeBonis and I am 13 years old. I was Friedrich in Olney Theatre’s The Sound of Music last year and Child Actor in Liberty Smith at Ford’s Theatre the year before. I was Lieutenant Brannigan in Musical Theater Center’s Guys and Dolls and the Mayor of Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz at MTC. I’ve also done several summer camp shows with Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts and am in their Young Columbians ensemble.

Emma: I’m Emma Sophie Moore – 13 years old. Before Big, I’ve been various roles in The Washington Ballet’s The Nutcracker for 6 years and a Junior Card (in red pointe shoes and a square tutu!) in Septime Webre’s Alice in Wonderland earlier this year. I performed in Arena Stage’s Community Engagement show and their summer camp productions. I played the Sergeant in Pirates of Penzance at my school last year.

Marley: Hi, I’m Marley McKay, I’m 14, and from Reston, Virginia! I haven’t done as much theatre work as I have TV and film but it’s very exciting. I’ve been in The Music Man at Atlas Theater as Winthrop, and also in A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre which was an honor, being Young Scrooge and other roles. And now I’m doing Big, The Musical, at Adventure Theatre-MTC, Beyond theater, this week I was in a new History Channel show called Men Who Built America. And my biggest film role was working with Peter Jackson, I was Nate in The Lovely Bones. I have worked since age 3, and theater is the most fun. A director came to see Big last night, as a way to audition me, and I just got the main role in a short movie about the scary Bunnyman story in Virginia.

Maya: My name is Maya Brettell. I am 15 years old. Last year, I was at The Studio Theatre in The Big Meal, at Synetic Theatre in Macbeth, at Synetic again for the teen company production of Romeo & Juliet, and at Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s production as the lead in Annie. My start came at the Little Theatre of Alexandria as a boy in their production of Scrooge the Musical five years ago this month. I fell in love with being onstage immediately. They were really good to me and even added a spotlight moment where I played a toy doll with a dance solo. I remember being so excited about it!

That show started it all and I have been lucky enough to appear in back-to-back shows since then.  There were several community theatre shows among my favorite roles including Amaryllis in The Music Man and Tinkerbell in Peter Pan at Mount Vernon Children’s Theatre, Baby June in LTA’s Gypsy, and then the streak of shows as Annie. I played Annie three times starting at the children’s theatre level, next appearing at Rockville Musical Theatre (RMT), and then at Toby’s. The experience at RMT was amazing and a real turning point in my career. They took me under their wing while I really matured as a musical theatre actor that summer. Thanks to everyone involved with that show, I received a 2012 WATCH nomination as a lead actress in a musical and our show was nominated for musical of the year. It gave me the confidence to go after this dream and look at me now – Adventure Theatre-MTC!

Talia: My name is Talia Brenner, and I’m 15. I’ve appeared in these productions: The Music Man (Ensemble), Washington Savoyards at the Atlas, Sunday in the Park with George (Louise), Kensington Arts Theatre Mainstage Once on This Island (Little Ti Moune), Kensington Arts Theatre 2nd Stage Godspell (Gilmer), Kensington Arts Theatre 2nd Stage School House Rock Live! (Interplanet Janet), Potomac Theatre Company The Velveteen Rabbit (The Child), Elden Street Players Annie! (Molly), Laurel Mill Playhouse Gypsy (Newsboy), Walt Whitman High School Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (Groupie), Walt Whitman High School The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Charlie Bradley), and Montgomery Playhouse The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Gladys Herdman).

Who are you playing in Big, The Musical -TYA and what do you like the most about your character?

Brendan: I play Josh’s best friend, Billy. I like that he’s the funny sidekick character.

Emma Sophie Moore.

Emma: I am in the Ensemble. I love my role because I’m in the show almost the entire time, but as different characters in different costumes. My personality gets to shine through when I’m acting like the put-upon teenager. Other times, I get to act like a kid in a toy store or as “young Susan” as she’s reminiscing. I think these are all different aspects of me.

Marley: I am so lucky to be Little Josh. ITS THE BEST ROLE I’VE EVER PLAYED!!! What I like about Little Josh is I can just express myself and take a little piece of me and incorporate it into him. I also like my Jersey Kid role because I get to roll around in Heelys (shoes with wheels in them).

Maya: I play Young Susan and different ensemble characters. The best thing about playing a number of characters in this show is that you get to wear a lot of fun costumes. The excitement of the show energizes me as a dancer. My characters pretty much dance their way through the show.

Talia: I play Cynthia Benson, as well as other roles. Cynthia is a fun role because she is such a caricature of a middle school “popular girl,” although she’s never too mean.

Why did you want to play your character?

Brendan: I was happy to get the role of Billy because I get to sing and be funny and I get to create a little of the personality of the character.

Emma: This part allows me to do everything I love to do: sing, dance and act! There is a lot of dancing for our role and I really enjoy putting it all together. I aspire to be a triple threat!

Marley McKay.

Marley: Well, I never knew I was going to be playing a Jersey Kid but I knew I wanted to be Little Josh for sure! I loved the movie, and after I saw it I knew I wanted to have the role of Little Josh so bad. I even gave up a different role in a play for Capital Fringe just to be in Big. I’ve never done a musical set in modern time and I think I just really wanted to play a character that was more like me.

Maya: I remember coming to see shows at Adventure Theatre when I was younger and thinking how it would be great to be one of the actors. This was the first time that I heard about kids being able to audition for the roles at Adventure. Plus, I had watched the movie Big before and ever since had wanted to dance on the light-up piano. It’s also funny to do this show because my mom and dad remember Big being in the movie theatre when they were teenagers. I like to tease them about it being so long ago.

Talia: I’ve never had the chance to play a middle school “it” girl before, (or be one, for that matter!) She’s nowhere near as perfect as Little Josh thinks she is, and I think this can teach middle schoolers that popularity is most definitely not everything.

What did you perform at your audition and how long after you auditioned did you find out you had the role? Where were you when you found out?

Brendan: The first song I sang at the audition was “Santa Fe” from Newsies. Then I accompanied myself on guitar and sang an original song I wrote called “Heading Away.” For the callback, we had to sing songs from BIG and do a scene from the show. The callback was on a Sunday and they called that night to offer me the role. I was cleaning out fish tanks with my dad when I got the call.

Emma: My first audition was in February last year and I sang “Simple Joys of Maidenhood”. It was only the second musical audition I had ever done and the accompanist stopped playing less than halfway-through. I then discovered its not a good idea to give the accompanist 5 sharps to sightread. I was called back and we were given some 4-part harmonies to sing. And we were taught a crazy dance at the callback.

In June, there was ANOTHER callback with more 4-part harmonies and fun dancing. I was actually sick with a chest cold at the last callback so I sang the boy’s part.  It was a really fun audition – I knew I really wanted the part! I was at a violin lesson when I found out I got it!

Marley: I performed “Gary, Indiana,” from my Winthrop role, and I also think they had me sing “Happy Birthday.” Well, I auditioned once, got a callback and then I had another call back 3 months after. It was a long process but I wa so so excited when I found out I got the part. My dad told me at my house after I got home, and I flipped out.

Maya Brettell.

Maya: Well, I was 14 at the time and knew these characters were probably younger than me so that made it easier to pick an audition song.  For the first look, I sang “My Favorite Things.” At the callback in February, we were asked to sing, “Coffee Black” from the show and to be prepared to dance. After the audition, I felt pretty good about it but wasn’t sure if I was the right size and sound since there were so many different types of kids there. In March, an email came with the offer.  I read the email and just screamed! I was excited so it was hard to wait through the summer in anticipation of the first rehearsal.

Talia: I sang "Nothing," from A Chorus Line, and "A Change in Me" from Beauty and the Beast at my audition for BIG. I found out I had the role at the callback the next day!

Which character in the show (that you or someone else is playing)
is most like the real you? 

Brendan: I think the character I play is most like me because he’s pretty much a laid-back tween kid who likes music. We’re different because he’s really confident and seems to have a handle on everything and I definitely do not.

Emma:  I already mentioned above how the different parts of my character are like me. Other than that, maybe I’m most like Billy. I’m optimistic and a good friend, but I’m better at algebra than Billy is.

Marley: I think Little Josh for sure. He has common sense, and uses things to his advantage. But when something good or bad happens his emotions show just like me.

Maya: That’s hard to say. It could be Big Josh (Greg) or Susan (Janine) as they try to figure out who they are in a crazy world. I can relate to both of them coming from different ends of the spectrum of child to adult. They are looking for that happy place in the middle where you keep the child’s zest for life but still live up to what the world expects of you as an adult. It could be that my life for the past year has been at that crossroads where I’m lucky enough to be living my dream and working in theatre but still have one foot in the teenage world with my friends and high school.

Talia Brenner.

Talia: Probably Billy; he’s very close with his friends, and he supports Josh throughout the story. In real life, my friends and I always try to be there for each other, despite our separate busy lives.

Tell me about the songs you sing in the show. 

Brendan: My first two main songs are basically musical pep talks. I sing “Talk to Her” when I’m trying to convince Little Josh to talk to his crush, Cynthia. I sing “Big Boy Now” to Big Josh when I take him to NYC and I’m trying to convince him that, in a lot of ways, it’s good to be big. My favorite song that I do is a rap called “It’s Time.” I’m pretty much talking to myself and the audience about how mad I am at Josh for ignoring me and not coming home. I also sing in some ensemble numbers both onstage and offstage. For one of the ensemble numbers, I’m a big, red robot.

Emma: All the songs I sing are really bright and fun, except the nightmare scene – it’s dark and fun!!

Marley: In the beginning of the show I sing “Cynthia Benson.” Its a song about Little Josh loving the girl he doesn’t have the guts to talk to. I also do “I Want to Know.” In that song, basically Little Josh wants to know what love feels like.

Maya: I’m lucky to be singing in most of the songs as part of the ensemble. One of my favorite moments is when my character as a Jersey girl is in the opening number. It’s the rush of “here we go with the show” that makes me slide into that happy-go-lucky character.

Talia: I sing in all the big ensemble numbers: “Can’t Wait,” “Time of Your Life,” “Fun,” “Cross the Line,” “Coffee, Black,” etc. I don’t sing in “Talk to Her,” but I do have lines. In that number, Billy is coaching Little Josh in managing a successful conversation with his crush, Cynthia.Unfortunately for Josh, she is more interested in texting and her older boyfriend, Derek.

What is your favorite song in the show that you do not sing?

Brendan: I think it would probably be “This Isn’t Me” which Big Josh sings when he wakes up as a man. I like it because the way Greg sings it makes the scene really funny.

Emma: “Dancing All The Time.” When Susan is singing about her 12-year old self and I’m dancing with her, it sounds like me – confident and free. I see the song as warning to my future self to never lose those traits.

AND “Stars.” The song is so funny and beautiful at the same time – Josh and Susan are singing about two completely different things, from two different perspectives, and they don’t really know it but the audience does.

Marley: “Stars,” because of the lighting and the tune is so catchy!

Maya: My favorite song that I don’t sing is “Big Boys.” I like it because Billy (Brandon) and Big Josh (Greg) are singing about how much fun you can have when you are big. I hum along backstage but mostly I just love hearing them sing it together. I also like to hear Billy’s mom (Kate) and Susan (Janine) sing their solos. So awesome!

Talia: I’d have to say my favorite is Billy’s song “Big Boys.” Maya, Emma Sophie, and I sing along backstage, but no one can sing it like Brendan can!

Have you ever felt ‘small’ and wished you were ‘bigger’? When and why?

Brendan: There was this time, a week before my 12th birthday, when I was at Go-cart tracks and I was about to get into a car on a faster track and the guy working there asked me how old I was. I told him that I was 11, which I still was at the time, and he told me that the track was for 12 and older. I was a week away from turning 12 and am even tall for my age. I tried to explain that to him but he still wouldn’t let me drive on the track without someone else in the car.

Emma: I’ve always been petite – I am only now allowed to sit in the front seat of the car – but otherwise, I love being a kid! I’m the baby of my family by eleven years and it has never worked against me. I know that I’ll have plenty of time to be grown up later.

Marley: YES. I’m 5’2”! I’ve always wanted to be tall. Legend says tall people get more ladies.  :)

Maya: When I was four years old there was a Nutcracker audition at my dance studio. I wanted badly to be Clara but the only option for the little girls like me was to be a mouse. It turned out that I liked the mouse dance but I still wished that I was bigger and in Clara’s pretty costume rather than my itchy mouse hood.

Talia: I’m young for my grade, so all of my friends broke 5 feet before me, turned 13 and became teenagers before me, etc. Now they’re all getting their driver’s permits before me!

You get to be onstage with some talented adults – Larry Munsey,
Ayanna Hardy, Kate Fisher, Calvin McCullough, Greg Maheu, and Janine
Sunday.  Has working with them and watching them perform taught you some valuable lessons about acting, singing, and performing on the stage?

Brendan: It’s been a great experience to work with all of them. They are all awesome performers and they’re really nice people. Also, watching Greg taught me that it’s possible to do about 20 costume changes in an hour and still stay in character.

Emma: Definitely! They have shown me how important it is to have fun on stage and enjoy what you’re doing – the audience has fun with you. Their professionalism and dedication encourages me to continue to train in the theater!

Marley: Yes. They’ve taught me to be more natural and add more natural pauses etc. when I’m acting.

Maya: I remember when the adults started rehearsals, about a week after the young actors had been at work. They started singing and just blew me away with the quality and control of their voices. There is something special about each of their talents and it’s helpful to watch how they do things like warm-up or develop their characters. I paid special attention to how they came in prepared for rehearsals, and regardless of whatever else is happening they turn out the same quality performance every time. I am lucky to have good friendships with all the actors, and appreciate how much the adults have shared with me when talking about theatre as a career I know it’s a small theatre world with most of us knowing people in common or having worked at the same theaters. It was really funny to learn that I had worked with Greg for a whole month before my brother came to one of our shows and told me that he had worked with Greg in A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre last year. I really hope the small theatre world brings the cast and crew together again because I will miss my Big family!

Talia: Absolutely! It’s been amazing to work with actors who have performed in such large-scale production. This show is unique in that everyone plays multiple roles. Watching the adults in the cast onstage has taught me so much about character acting.

What have you learned about yourselves as actors performing in this production? 

Brendan: I realize that I sometimes tend to rush lines. The director and musical director were very particular about enunciating and slowing down lines, so that was really helpful. Now I am much more aware of my pacing.

Emma: My love for all of it – the singing, dancing and acting – has grown! We had 3 or 4 weeks of really long rehearsals – school all day and rehearse as many hours into the evening. As tired as we all were physically, I didn’t want it to be over each day.  We’ve also learned how to be very flexible – with actors being out at the last minute with an injury or illness, we all learned to adapt in real-time. And stuff happens – like a technical glitch during opening night with all of the reviewers in the audience. The world didn’t end.

Marley McKay (Young Josh) and Kate Fisher (Josh’s Mom). Photo by Bruce Douglas.

Marley: I’ve learned that when things get tough, I still fight through it.

Maya: This is the most dancing that I’ve ever done in a show. I’ve learned about the stamina that it takes to dance and sing throughout a show.

Talia: This is the longest run of any show I’ve been in, and I was worried that I would not have the stamina and attention required for so many shows. But I’ve learned that every performance is different in some way.

What advice and suggestions did Director and Choreographer Michael Bobbitt give you about  working together as a team and about performing your role?

Brendan: With performing, he helped by reminding us to enunciate and speak clearly. Also, he let us bring some of our own ideas and personality to our characters, which really helped me to connect to the character. He has a really fun attitude which rubs off on everyone, so we all got along and everyone seemed to have fun working together.

Emma: We all really liked each other and bonded during the first week of rehearsals so working as a team came naturally to us. ‘Mr. Michael’ (I like to call him that) told us to really bring out our sassy teenage-attitude. As you can imagine, that wasn’t very hard either.

Marley: Mainly Michael got us excited and made us want to just do our best.

Maya: Michael made sure we understood how important it was to support each other. In the very beginning, Michael said how happy he was to have the kids be a part of the show and that he was all about having fun or it just wasn’t worth doing. I think we were all pretty nervous the first night of rehearsal and didn’t really believe him about the fun part. But in rehearsal, we did laugh almost as much as we worked. That really helped us to not feel awkward and to reach out to each other.  After long rehearsals of singing and dancing we always left feeling good about ourselves. Michael pushed us to keep going over our scenes together whenever we had a free moment. His enthusiasm motivated us to work hard. For me, the best part was working with Michael as a choreographer. He knows where he is going with the choreography but still takes the time to experiment and include the performer’s ideas. It’s hard to answer this question with something concrete because Michael just naturally creates that perfect environment. We were jazzed to be there, motivated to give our best, and we felt valued for our individual skills but even more for what the cast could deliver together.

Talia: Michael made a point of showing the kids in the cast all the stages of the production, from costume sketches to set-building to lighting and sound design. There’s always a level of education in his directing.

Where will you be performing on the stage next after Big, The Musical-TYA closes?

Brendan: I have no theater plans yet, but in the meantime I’m lining up a few places, like restaurants, to perform in (guitar and singing) and I’ll be looking for open mic nights too. I just finished recording 14 of my original songs on Garage Band to put on my first CD.

Emma: I’m looking at some community theater shows right now, and my upcoming school musical, Seussical, the Musical, Jr. Any ideas are welcome!

Marley: I’ll be performing at the art of school. I’m not going to be doing any musicals this year so I can focus more on school and my grades.

Maya: I am happy to say that I am staying right here at Adventure Theatre.  I will play Mary Ingalls in The Little House On The Prairie Christmas. We open on November 17th, so come and see us!

Talia: I’m excited to audition for my high school drama this winter, and for a teen production of Spring Awakening at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer!

Why will children and their parents love Big, The Musical -TYA?

Brendan: Pretty much anyone can relate to this show. It’s funny and appealing to all ages and the music is really good.

Emma: The show has a lot of FUN and action for kids – but it also has story and lyrics that will appeal to parents and older kids in a different way. Its fun to see different groups laughing at different things. Also, it has a healthy message about not growing up too fast, and being careful what you wish for…both really good advice.

Marley: Because it’s fun! Michael put so much effort and fun things in, that it’s enjoyable for both adults and kids. There are also adult and kid humor, so it’s a good time for everyone.

Maya: The show is high energy with dancing, upbeat songs, colorful costumes and characters. Kids like that they have something to watch every minute. They think it’s pretty funny to see the adults playing with the toys.  The adults laugh at a lot of the dialogue. There are some amazing singers in this show and sometimes you hear the adults say, “wow,’ like they didn’t expect it. Some of my adult friends have told me that they were close to tears at the end. I can’t tell you how it ends but it’s enough to say that Josh and Billy are still best friends!

Talia: It’s a big, fun musical based on a classic movie. The story is fast-paced and packed with singing and dancing, so it appeals to every age. But at the same time, Big, the Musical ultimately teaches an important lesson about friendship, family, and growing up.

Cast of ‘Big, The Musical-TYA.’ Photo by Bruce Douglas.

Big, the Musical-TYA plays through October 28, 2012 at Adventure Theatre/MTC – 7300 MacArthur Blvd, in Glen Echo, MD (in Glen Echo Park). Purchase tickets by calling (301) 634-2270, or order them online.

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