The needle that still sings in my heart…

Photo Credit to Amanda Palmer’s Flickr Set

1, 2, 3, 4…….15.

The number of students in the above photograph. What am I doing, you ask? Well, I am attempting to “count every beautiful thing we can see.”

Last night, 23 wide-eyed suburban high school students created something transcendent; a performance that came out of one unlikely inspiration: 1998 indie cult classic In The Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel; an album, most had never even heard before.

And while I could merely hit the repeat button in addiction, jaw agape, when I was just about the same age–they instead took this record, hit repeat I can assume innumerable times, and turned it into high art.

The stage had been set at Lexington High School after three months of absorption, conceiving, writing and the like–the end result, “With the Needle that Sings in Her Heart”, the students workshop style production guided by longtime drama teacher Stephen Bogart and featuring Amanda Palmer, one half of the Dresden Dolls, a well-known figure in the indie music world, punk cabaret tour de force, and an all around brilliant performer…who happens to have graduated from LHS and its drama program, more than a decade ago.

The project would intrigue any music devotee, clearly. It had to be seen; but fears abounded that the hype surrounding the famous performer’s role left wariness as to whether she would upstage a performance meant as a place for the young to “lay in the sun” and shine.

My fears couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

Palmer, who played the role of “death” as ringmaster in this extremely heavy drama, didn’t have a single speaking line (save for an absolutely breathtaking and triumphant solo of “Two Headed Boy Part II” at the play’s finish), instead acting as conductor to what felt like a freakish turn of the century circus act meets realistic interpretation of the work camps and the imagination famed diarist and Holocaust tragedy Anne Frank must have used in her final days of life.

The ensemble style production wavered betwixt an imaginary world of performance, laughter, and a future filled of frills and the reality of bloodied fingers, torture, sexual violence and death at the hands of maniacal guards. One minute, exuberance, love, and color and then bang!, the shot of a gun and a pregnant Jew was executed after too eagerly begging for bread.

I can only beg to begin to imagine what occurred day after day in that school, as students played back what is considered Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel’s masterpiece, a hazy concept album based on a series of surrealistic dreams he had about Frank and the Holocaust.

Apparently director Stephen Bogart had students use a Rasa Box, based on an Indian style dance and a technique used in the drama world, which forces performers and writers to viscerally move about the room as a response to certain emotions tagged in each “box”.

“It’s just the kind of reaction you’d have to smelling spices,” Bogart told me more than a week back when I interviewed him for a piece I wrote about the play in the Boston Herald. “You have a reaction to a smell. You have a reaction to an emotion. It’s just like that.”

And react those kids did.

The students emoted last night as if this production had been living inside them forever. The audience felt every moment; an intake of breath, held for what felt like the entire length of World War II, met by an outtake as Eliza Strauss and Kate Henoch, playing movie stars and prisoners Helga and Heidi respectively, absolutely wowed with sheer humor and all around brilliant acting chops–girls, you’ve got remarkable futures in stage.

While it appeared the crowd was unsure as to when they should laugh or break down in tears, that roller coaster of emotions was soothed by Alex Parrish, who played the evening’s MC as well as King of the Gods Zeus, and was the main vocal performer: sitting with his acoustic guitar working tunes off the record, from “Communist Daughter” to “Two Headed Boy” and beyond, and he tackled the difficult vocal stylings of Mangum as if he were coached directly on some remote rural, Louisiana farm by the genius himself.

The funniest moments came during an exchange in a giant bathtub, as Anne and her sister Margot cleaned themselves while hiding in the Annex before capture by Nazis; a fight between Zeus, his brother Poseidon (“and horses!”), and Hades, God of the Underworld. Poseidon, played by Roy Baron, so charmingly wowed with his enthusiasm, especially when he barked at Hades for loving death–claiming this devotion to the underworld doesn’t score him invites out anywhere with the gang of Gods because its so “Awkwarrrrrd!”.

This is just an example of the extremely remarkable ways in which the students took the magic in this play and brought it into a real world realm every one of us could relate to. We all have that friend. Don’t we?

While students took liberty with the order tunes appeared on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, it had no bearing on the performance. Technical production was astounding; moving sets which were integrated seamlessly and the excellent decision to house the ensemble musicians in a vaudeville inspired screen at the back of the stage, where the audience could subtly see Amanda Palmer conduct them as they absolutely wowed with their instrumentation–really guys…you are the “brass” of that high school music program.

As students took their bows alongside a musical great, the poise was palpable. It was Amanda Palmer who took a giant breath in relief (and maybe exhaustion!). We took a breath with you, Amanda.

File Under: To Lexington High School Drama Students, “when we meet on a cloud I’ll be laughing out loud, I’ll be laughing with everyone I can see.”

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