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Two Musical Premieres: One Opening Night Done, Another Approaching

CORRECTION (Monday, August 4, 2014): This story has been updated to include mention and details of Saturday afternoon matinees for A Rockin' Midsummer Night's Dream.

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Watching Director Michael Unger bouncing back and forth between rehearsals for two world premiere musicals he is helming for The 12.14 Foundation begs a reference to a tight rope walker. Upon hearing this during a brief interview just three days before his first opening night, Unger lights up.

“It’s interesting that you make that comparison,” he replies, “because a few years ago when I was in Paris I found a postcard that I still have that depicts a clown just about to step out onto a high wire — except in one hand, he’s holding the other end of his own tight rope.”

Realizing the success of any theatrical production rests largely on the shoulders of its director is something that weighs heavily on Unger, who first arrived in Newtown during the fragile months following the Sandy Hook School tragedy to help creative partner and 12.14 Foundation Founder Michael Baroody initiate a “healing through the arts” initiative. That meeting resulted in the smash success that was last summer’s Seussical the Musical, also presented by the foundation.

But the pair have surrounded themselves with a combination of very dedicated professionals who have staffed some of the world’s most celebrated theatrical productions — including many on or off Broadway.

They have also enlisted a support crew consisting of hand-picked theater students who Unger says have been working tirelessly, some since auditions, to ensure the 12.14 Foundation’s two tent post productions present little or no difference to the audience, whether they are seated in the Newtown High auditorium, or on the Great White Way.

The first production, A Rockin' Midsummer Night's Dream, opened last night at Newtown High School. Additional performances are scheduled for this afternoon and evening, and tomorrow afternoon. The schedule for next week mirrors this weekend, with shows on Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and evening, and late Sunday afternoon.

The second, 101 Dalmatians: The Musical  is scheduled for the evenings of August 6-8 and midday August 10.

When asked about the pressure of helming the two simultaneous musical productions Unger appears unfazed.

“It’s magical,” he said Tuesday. “But I’ve never juggled two productions with only three or four days between openings. I’ve certainly juggled two or three productions, but they’ve been much more spread out. I’ve never rehearsed one show in the morning and another one in the afternoon.”

Despite the demands, the director remains excited and upbeat about his casts as he headed into his 15th hour of technical rehearsals for the Shakespeare musical July 29 at the high school.

“I love tech rehearsals — the pieces all come together and you start seeing all the magic,” he said, at the same time acknowledging that these sessions can be very wearing on both the cast and crew.

“I pride myself on not having people losing their tempers because I think we prep well, and mostly it has to do with the chemistry of the people working here,” he said. “They see the vision, they know what they’re working for, and when they do get upset, it’s because they want that show to open right, on time, and they want it to be the best experience they can deliver.”

Unger said for his Newtown crew, there is something more important than just putting on a show.

“The shows for us are means to an end of providing healing and strength, of giving kids confidence, and we’ve done that,” he said. “If we never open, each and every person involved will have had a positive experience. But adding the thrill of having a good audience, and sharing their talents with their families, friends and community, is a huge reward for them.

“We’re not here to make the show happen — we’re here to make these kids happen, so it’s very healthy for us to work in an environment where there is something far more important than the show,” he added.

With three casts — one for Dalmatians, and two for the Shakespeare musical — and local actors ranging in age from five to 19, Unger is pleased to see how the less experienced actors are looking up to their more experienced peers as well as the handful of union actors starring in the productions.

“We’ve seen 90 percent of the kids who came in with little or no theater experience blossom in their own way and find themselves more comfortable,” Unger said. “And the most exciting thing for me is when I see them blossoming not as the character, but from within themselves.”

A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream opened Friday, August 1. Performances continue Saturdays, August 2 and 9, at 2 and 7 pm; Sunday, August 3, at 2 pm; Friday, August 8, at 7 pm, and Sunday, August 10, at 5 pm.

101 Dalmatians: the Musical will be performed Wednesday and Thursday, August 6-7, at 7 pm; Friday, August 8, at 11 am; and Sunday, August 10, at noon.

The venue for both plays is Newtown High School, 12 Berkshire Road.

Ticket prices range from $22.50 to $30, and can be ordered by calling 866-967-8167 (press 1) or online at 1214foundation.org.

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