We follow Atlantic High School’s production of “Beauty and the Beast,” from start to finish.
SHOWTIME! All the world’s a stage for Atlantic High School actors
We chronicle the production of a high school play from start to finish. More than that, we spotlight what it’s like to be a high school student in 2019-2020.
Students filled seats on the edges of the auditorium, parting around the five teachers in the center section like the heavy curtains framing the stage.
They stood up before the audience in turns, singing, dancing and acting through barely concealed desperation. They feigned courage, which wilted before most were finished.
Back in the safety of their seats, their eyes tracked not their competitors, but those who would seal their fate: five teachers, careful to mask their reactions in a show of their own.
Unwittingly, the people in the auditorium had become characters in the performance that is life at a modern high school — where social media can chronicle your every step and thought, but living life under a magnifying glass has consequences.
To learn more about the pressures of that life, The News-Journal visited Atlantic High School more than 30 times during the three-month build-up for its performance of “Beauty and the Beast.”
We met a group of teenagers excited to escape into a fairy tale from a world filled with the demands of homework and standardized tests, part-time jobs and extracurricular activities, friends and family, mental health counseling and active shooter drills. They juggled crushes and budding performing careers and half-formed post-graduation plans, all while acting like everything’s fine. They’re not affected.
The show, their lives, must go on.
At the center of the row of teachers, in the center of the auditorium and at the center of everyone’s attention, sat Anthony Romeo-Adcock, the theater teacher and director of the play. After 10 years as a working actor in New York City and four years as part of a national tour of the musical “Seussical,” he was inscrutable watching the auditions in December. With his bow tie always pulled tight and his hair always smoothed down, he seemed to miss nothing.
It’s his first year as a full-time teacher, and this is his first full-length musical production at the school. The musical is the department’s main funding source; without enough ticket sales, students can’t join in on regional and state competitions next year or have the seed money for future productions.
Feeling the weight of his own expectations in his empty classroom moments before the auditions began, Romeo-Adcock confessed what had been keeping him awake for weeks:
“What if I make the wrong choice?”
Atlantic High is home to Volusia County’s only performing arts academy. Some students drive 45 minutes both ways, without the option of a bus, to participate in the drama, chorus, dance and band programs that make up the On Stage Academy.
Some of them are just in it for the community. You know the types: the ones who wear a lot of black and keep to themselves; or those who love to sing and watch Disney movies but want to be marine biologists; some who just need a reason to come to school every day.
Then there are the ones with stars in their eyes, who want to be actors and vocal performers when they graduate. They perform in community theater productions in their spare time. They take dance and voice lessons from the time they can walk and speak. They take academic classes online to leave more time for it all.
This sense of purpose connects the students in Romeo-Adcock’s higher-level courses. They just want to be on stage.
They were excited to learn they were putting on this “tale as old as time.” They knew the characters and the words to all the songs. They knew which parts they wanted.
Romeo-Adcock surprised them when he wouldn’t let anyone audition for specific parts. He picked cast members based on where he thought they’d fit after general auditions. So the students kept their dreams to themselves.
“I’d be happy just to be in the show,” said each of the seven girls who wanted to be Belle at different times. They repeated it so often, with smiles so big, you almost believed them.
The auditions took place during midterms, but the students downplayed whatever schoolwork they had piling up.
The first two days were spent on a “cattle call” — 60 students auditioning for 18 main roles, plus about 15 slots for dancers and singers in big scenes. So nearly half of the students who auditioned would end up watching from the audience.
Maybe that’s why they couldn’t stop bumping into each other. No one said they couldn’t talk, yet few did. They walked around the auditorium with their faces pasted into banal smiles or their brows furrowed. They whispered predictions to each other, always convinced they weren’t going to get what they wanted.
“You’re gonna get it,” Abbee Franks told Charlize Folmsbee after both got callbacks for Belle, her tone resigned but making a push for congratulatory.
“If you’re gonna start this s—, I literally won’t talk to you,” Charlize fired back. She smiled.
The two are close, but the stakes are so high the tension sometimes crackles between them, especially after Charlize was chosen for a role Abbee wanted in a play earlier this year. Abbee’s a junior who wants to make musical theater her career. Charlize is a senior, and this will be her last high school musical.
In the end, neither got the leading role. Each said she was happy just to be in the play.
After all the hopeful Belles auditioned on the third day, Romeo-Adcock was angry. You could tell by how his ears glowed as red as a stoplight.
He’d told them the audition was to show how well they could act and emote, not how prettily or how loudly they could sing. Romeo-Adcock didn’t yell, but the girls sank lower in their stadium seats. They were sufficiently chagrined, and he told them they’re lucky to get a second chance. They all went again, and he was right: They did better.
About 30 students read for some of the other roles that same day: Beast, Gaston, Le Fou, Cogsworth, Lumiere, Mrs. Potts, Chip, the wardrobe, the feather duster. It went on for five hours with just a few short breaks, as different groupings of potential cast members acted out small scenes over and over.
The teachers didn’t eat. They hardly moved. They just watched, whispered and took notes while even the most anxious students put themselves in front of an audience and waited for judgment.
Ask Kyle Bjorge, Jordan Linton or Jaylie Barnes why they subject themselves to such torment, and they’ll say it’s because they like to make people happy — despite the pressure to perform.
Jordan, a 16-year-old with glasses and an unmatched proficiency in dance, overthinks things and is prone to tears. Jaylie, a sweet junior with hair dyed strawberry blond, is known for being especially critical of herself and letting that affect her performance. And Kyle, a gangly blond senior, manages to make it look easy while keeping a secret from nearly everyone in his life.
Fortunately, the teacher tribunal was on their side.
Students who almost cried on stage were met with words of encouragement. The ones who forgot the words to a song heard Romeo-Adcock’s voice guiding them through unfamiliar verses. And they were unfailingly polite, thanking every student for their time.
But Romeo-Adcock didn’t let anyone get too relaxed.
“If you think you know what we’re thinking,” he told them more than once, “you don’t.”
Gone are the days when students clustered around a bulletin board and waited for a teacher to sweep out and pin up the printed cast list.
The announcement went out on Twitter at 10:29 p.m., as soon as the teachers made their choices. They picked Jaylie for Belle and Kyle for the Beast.
Within half an hour, the post was being retweeted, liked and replied to. Students added their own statements focused on the positive: “Congrats to everyone!” with a sparkling heart emoji.
Privately, there were tears. A flurry of angry texts back and forth between friends who felt they’d been snubbed. Romeo-Adcock held a few closed-door conversations the next day.
Though comfortable with his choices, Romeo-Adcock’s sleep would now be interrupted with new worries, about how he would produce a musical with teenagers in just two months.
Learning how to act, when to stop
Natalie Alonzo doesn’t walk. She sashays on tiptoes across a room, glancing around to see if anyone’s watching.
Her big voice and big personality seem to fill Atlantic High School’s teal-toned auditorium, where senior pictures of alumni watch over her and her classmates rehearsing their production of “Beauty and the Beast,” which opens Thursday.
The News-Journal was there watching, too. As part of a series about what high school life is like in 2020, we found students under extreme pressure to perform; students whose every step and thought can be chronicled on social media; and students who struggle to let even their closest friends see them be vulnerable.
Their theater teacher, Anthony Romeo-Adcock, once said he isn’t teaching them how to act.
“My job is teaching students how to feel feelings,” he said. “Not put them on. To feel them.”
Natalie’s urge to perform is part of her charm — and a trait she’s working to manage. It means she’s perfectly cast as Wardrobe, Madame de a Grande Bouche, a once-famous opera singer who wants to remind everyone of her talent and fame.
But the constant act can also be isolating. Since joining Atlantic High’s On Stage performing arts academy in ninth grade, the sophomore’s had to learn how to relate to her peers as people rather than an audience. But like Natalie, they wear masks, too, to hide their feelings or project curated personas — a process that risks repelling the very people they hope to attract.
Many of the teenagers react to what they see and hear with dance moves. In rehearsals, in class, they tip their head to the side and pull their hand across their chest horizontally to punctuate a thought. They shield their eyes and give a half-turn away to act embarrassed. They look down and snap their fingers silently, three or four times fast, when they like something.
These are moves they learned from videos on YouTube, Snapchat or TikTok. Earlier generations passed notes they keep in a box in a closet. This generation is about the ephemeral: a set of gestures you’ll miss if you blink; digital messages that disappear.
In the shared language of 2020, everything is a joke — a buffer between an audience and any true feelings.
“Periodt” is a harsh but funny way to say end of discussion; “chile anyways” is how they dismiss something. They have at least three ways to concede a mistake without admitting they’re not perfect: “and I oop” and “you caught me slippin” and “my life is in shambles.”
Most of these phrases are plucked from those funny videos where students learn their dance moves, shared and recreated so many times, they can’t even begin to guess at their origins. And it doesn’t really matter where the phrases came from.
They just hope that if they can make you laugh, you won’t ask any questions.
Natalie has wanted to be a performer for almost as long as she can remember. As rehearsals started for “Beauty and the Beast,” she was also attending nightly rehearsals for a production of “Seussical, Jr.” at the Athens Theatre in DeLand — a trek from both her Port Orange school and her New Smyrna Beach home, all before the now-16-year-old could drive herself.
Other cast members are brand new to performing, like Grant Foxman, who plays Gaston, the hyper-masculine villain who spends the play trying to force Belle to marry him. Grant, a senior, is president of Atlantic High’s Academy of Law and Government, has never even been in chorus, and never stops smiling.
For such a nice guy, the role of Gaston does not come naturally.
In one of the play’s most dramatic scenes, Gaston roughly grabs Belle and kisses her against her will while a crowd watches. The scene ends with a slap to Gaston’s face.
In rehearsals, Grant bent at the waist, pecked Jaylie Barnes’ Belle on the lips and pulled away in less than a second.
“Oh that’s — oh, no,” Romeo-Adcock said from his seat at the center of the auditorium. The play stopped cold as Jaylie and Grant blushed, a full two feet between them. Jordan Linton, who plays the part of Gaston’s sidekick Le Fou, narrated the pause: “Uncomfy.”
Romeo-Adcock stood and called out Grant from his place in the audience: “You’re gonna get close to her, you’re gonna grab her face and you’re going to force her lips onto yours as she tries to struggle and fight away.”
Grant nodded, resolute, as Romeo-Adcock explained why he had to do it: “This is teaching young men that no means no.”
After the misguided peck, Romeo-Adcock made Grant kiss Jaylie two times while their peers urged them on with whoops.
Later, Grant said he could see himself sticking with acting after he graduates.
People can’t help watching Natalie. Her face could have been drawn by Disney animators, and her laugh belongs to a princess. Though the Wardrobe is not a main character, eyes in the audience find her as if drawn by a spotlight. Her voice is so strong, choir teacher Brooke Adkins told other students not to even attempt her parts in the music: “That is Natalie’s note!”
But Natalie also is not immune to her own magnetism. She has dozens of videos of herself stored on her phone. She records herself sitting in class, sometimes listening to a lecture, sometimes trying to get her friends to make faces at the camera. In others, she’s at home, crying.
“It’s kind of like my friend,” she said of the version of herself in the videos.
In her desire to entertain, she finds herself performing a caricature. She admits she loses friends easily, and until getting to Atlantic last year, didn’t realize that other people could be just as talented as she is.
The pressure to perform has taken its toll — even as she’s grown, people expect her to play the character she created.
“I’m tired of feeling like I have to put on a show for everyone,” she said, sitting in a row in the auditorium by herself. “I literally just want to be normal.”
The advantage of putting on a play with high schoolers is that each is like a sponge. Romeo-Adcock told Grant one time how to convincingly force a kiss on someone, and he executed it flawlessly afterward. Now surrounded by other gifted performers, Natalie took their critiques and the advice of her mentors to heart and is working on saving the performance for the stage.
The problem with putting on a play with high schoolers is that they’re high schoolers. Once, a cast member missed rehearsals because she was suspended for having a vape pen at school. Another time, a cast member brought rehearsals to a halt after passing out from a combination of a possible panic attack and not eating anything all day. And many days, cast members aren’t prepared. They forget where to stand, how harmonies work and what they’re supposed to do on stage.
“That was not as bad as I thought, but it wasn’t as good as I hoped,” became Romeo-Adcock’s frequent refrain, a way to both praise students and remind them they can do better.
But some students wondered if that was true. Some struggled more than others to learn lines and complicated musical numbers and keep up with responsibilities to their education, families, part-time jobs and once-distant futures that drew closer day by day.
Atlantic High seniors struggle to act like everything’s fine
Even with a cast full of students who have done this before, and even with more than 100 hours of rehearsal time, things were “in shambles” the week before tonight’s opening of Atlantic High School’s “Beauty and the Beast,” according to one cast member.
The disarray wasn’t unusual: the last week of any production is typically devoted to figuring out all of the technical aspects of the play that, until then, have been neglected.
Parents hand-sewed costumes in a classroom into the evenings. The crew learned how to use the light and sound boards and maneuver the sets. And the cast did run-through after run-through so the crew could practice their parts.
Although students in Volusia County’s only performing arts academy improve their performance with each run, the week can be grueling. In theory it will clear away any uncertainties (and the scent of damp Chick-fil-A takeout) that hang over rehearsals so that things go smoothly by opening night.
It’s what more than 30 students and no less than five teachers have been working toward since the start of December. For theater teacher Anthony Romeo-Adcock, it’s his directorial debut at the Port Orange high school. For seniors like Kyle Bjorge, Briana Coakley, Charlize Folmsbee, Nick Rossi, Mina Stevens, Chelsea Thomas and Edward Watson, it’s their final high school musical. For everyone, it’s a last chance to right all that’s been going wrong.
The News-Journal visited the school as often as possible over three months as part of a series about what high school life is like in 2020. While high school has always been stressful, the pressures these students face — from standardized testing and social media to active shooter drills and lockdowns — are unique to their times.
Social scientists say teenagers are more likely to be depressed or have anxiety disorders than they were just 10 years ago. The cast of “Beauty and the Beast” doesn’t need to see that data. Not right before opening night. Not when the pressure to perform — and the desire to be perfect — have pushed even one of Atlantic’s most popular kids to a breaking point.
“Especially with this show, I’ve literally been the most of a wreck I think I’ve ever been in my life,” said 17-year-old Nick Rossi. “I feel immense pressure, all the time.”
But watching him on stage, where he plays the charming Lumiere, you’d never know. Hiding the pressure is part of his generation’s specialty.
For a long time in rehearsals, Nick struggled. He mumbled through his parts in songs, had to be told where he should be standing on stage and couldn’t quite get his French accent right.
“I have no idea what’s going on,” he mouthed to another actor on stage, accompanied by the desperate laugh that’s his trademark. That was two weeks before showtime.
Part of his trouble was he’d been sick for weeks with what eventually was diagnosed as strep throat. Part of it was because he missed a handful of rehearsals to go to college auditions — notably, at Florida State University, where he wants to study musical theater. And part of it was because he’s just overwhelmed.
He works part-time at McDonald’s, where his parents still drive him because, even at 17, he’s been too busy to take driver’s education. He had to stop taking college courses through the district’s dual enrollment program because he no longer had time for them. Even after he’d ironed out the wrinkles in his performance, he felt the weight of his own expectations.
“Like, I’m stressed, I’m under pressure and — this is gonna sound bad — but I literally just spontaneously cry sometimes,” he said, with that laugh. “And that doesn’t (usually) happen, but I think it’s because I am so used to bottling things up, that things are now coming out sporadically.”
He said he’s been working on it, but really — when does he have the time?
Everyone was feeling the pressure at the start of opening week, and a blowup was inevitable. The source of this one could have been tracked like a hurricane about to hit land.
It started small. Two students in the ensemble had purchased similar corsets for their costumes. Whispers spread that the first corset owner was angry.
In his office during a break, Romeo-Adcock dispelled the rumor to a group of students eating pizza. He had approved both corsets; they were different; and no one was upset.
Yet by then, the gossip had spread to students in the dressing rooms, then back to the owner of the second corset. Romeo-Adcock re-entered the auditorium five minutes later to find her in tears.
The drama — the bad kind — earned the students a seething lecture.
“In case you forgot, I am the director,” Romeo-Adcock said. Though seated on the edge of the stage, the veteran actor who’s worked in New York and on a national tour towered over the students seated in the audience. “We are the performing arts academy in Volusia County. And you will present yourselves as professionals. And you will not talk about people behind their back.”
Ten minutes later, with the storm past, rehearsals continued.
Nick’s Lumiere is often paired on stage with Chelsea Thomas as Babette, the feather duster. Their characters flirt and fight, providing some of the best-timed comedic relief in the show.
In real life, Nick and Chelsea are both seniors going through the college application and audition process to get into musical theater programs. They’re also Mr. and Miss Atlantic High School — effectively, the most popular people in school. And they’re both insecure about their talent.
After another seemingly spotless rehearsal, Chelsea offered a biting review of her performance.
“As I am now for this show, this is the best I will be,” she said. “And that’s really depressing for me, because I know I can do better.”
Nick felt the same, an attitude Romeo-Adcock said is endemic among the students who have made musical theater their lives. They beat themselves up over perceived shortcomings, even as they return to the spotlight over and over.
“I want to be the best,” Nick said. “I put that pressure on myself.”
The last few rehearsals were hard.
Chelsea’s costume shed feathers with every flourish of her hands. Nick couldn’t find the light bulbs he was supposed to hold. Kyle Bjorge, the Beast, got contacts to replace his glasses just days earlier but they started giving him migraines. Two crew members dropped out following just one rehearsal. After putting up his own money for the show, Romeo-Adcock anxiously tracked ticket sales.
Sophomore stage manager Kaitlyn Green, always quiet, turned especially so. With the show so close, her nerves were getting the better of her.
“I’m terrified,” she said.
But things were improving, too. Romeo-Adcock complimented senior Briana Coakley’s Mrs. Potts — her first chance to act in a main role since joining the department her freshman year — for how she connected with other characters on stage in a way some of her peers were struggling to do. As Cogsworth, sophomore Angel Lemos Delgado continued to finesse his ability to get full laughs from the audience. And silly girls Charlize Folmsbee, Raina Ford, Abbee Franks and Mina Stevens brought the right amount of energy to every performance.
Despite the praise, as the curtain call inched closer the cast and crew couldn’t help but go about their routines with nerves on edge. Some were more excited than frightened. Others were holding back tears.
But binding them all, this whole time, was the same blind conviction: It will come together. It has to.
Atlantic’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ opening a smash; star makes big reveal
Backstage on opening night of “Beauty and the Beast” at Atlantic High School, the nervous cast repeated the same words to each other over and over like a prayer: Bad dress rehearsal, good opening night. Bad dress rehearsal, good opening night.
With a line of people stretching out the door waiting to get in and more seats filled than they’re used to, the students warmed up their voices around a piano. Six weeks of rehearsals had led to these tense moments under the fluorescent lights of a high school hallway. They tried to breathe.
The News-Journal visited Atlantic High School more than 30 times during the three months students produced “Beauty and the Beast. Though talented beyond their years, they struggled under the weight of their own expectations and the pressures of being a teenager in 2020.
“I don’t think I could be prouder,” director and theater teacher Anthony Romeo-Adcock told them a few minutes before the curtainraising. Then he confessed: “I mean, I’m terrified. Ha!”
His students felt the same energy.
Jordan Linton stretched and made jokes, his laughter louder than usual. Nick Rossi sat quietly and hoped everyone else would calm down. Grant Foxman paced.
And someone helped Kyle Bjorge into the mask that would conceal his face for almost the entire show.
Kyle took the stage with a secret he hadn’t told any of his friends — but before the show ended, both the Beast’s mask and Kyle’s would come off.
In the weeks leading up to opening night, Romeo-Adcock often sounded more like an English professor than the director of a musical. Especially in the beginning, when he and Kyle dissected the Beast’s motivations in each scene. They discussed how he’s a man with the mind of a child after spending his formative years in a castle with only servants to speak to. He feels angry. Ashamed of himself. Unlovable.
“Oh, wow,” Kyle said, a boyish grin spreading across his face as he bounced on his toes in Romeo-Adcock’s empty classroom. At 6-foot-2, Kyle’s all limbs, with smooth blond hair, glasses that perch on the end of his nose and a backpack he wheels behind him wherever he goes.
Here’s the thing Kyle hasn’t told anyone at school, something you wouldn’t know just from seeing him on stage: He has Asperger’s syndrome.
That’s a type of autism characterized by difficulties interpreting emotions from people’s body language or facial expressions. He was diagnosed when he was about 4, and his parents worked to teach him how to read the visual cues. They were so successful, none of his peers knew.
Even back at auditions in December, they expected him to be cast as the Beast. He towers over the rest of the cast, even when he slouches, but his best qualification for the role isn’t obvious until he opens his mouth to sing. His voice is huge and strong, bounding through a room like a charging bull. It’s something else you wouldn’t know just from looking at him.
His diagnosis was something Kyle felt he needed to hide — until recently. He realized how good of a job he did at overcoming the obstacles he faced when one of his peers commented about suspecting someone else of having Asperger’s.
“I was overjoyed,” Kyle said. “He had no idea!”
Romeo-Adcock worked no differently with Kyle than he did with the rest of the cast, explaining once that for a generation raised on social media he must teach them how to feel emotions, not just act them out.
As a senior about to graduate, Kyle said he’s realized that Asperger’s is only a facet of his identity, and a small one at that. First and foremost, he’s a singer, a performer, a son, a student and the lead actor in his final high school musical — one who can especially understand how the Beast, an outcast, feels.
The lights dimmed on Kyle’s figure on stage. He had just closed the opening act with “If I Can’t Love Her” — an operatic lament about not wanting to live anymore if he was too horrible for Belle.
He felt pretty good during the intermission, though many of his peers were fixating on mistakes lost on the forgiving members of the audience.
“I’m so disappointed in myself it isn’t funny,” said Luke Keeley, a sophomore whose microphone pack fell down his pants during the big “Be Our Guest” dance number, unbeknownst to anyone else. “I was like, ‘I’m garbage, I’m gonna quit this show. I gotta step it up.’”
Others bemoaned their own problems during the 15 minutes before the second act: Jordan’s spoon costume broke right before “Be Our Guest,” so he danced without it. Angel Lemos Delgado tried to hold still while friends re-drew face makeup that wasn’t showing on stage as well as they liked. Morgan Pendleton asked if anyone had seen her kick a length of rogue feathers from Babette’s costume into the pit during a dance number.
Back in the audience, Romeo-Adcock looked calmer than he’d been in weeks.
“I’m really happy with it,” he said.
The final act remained — including the play’s emotional climax that had been giving Kyle and Jaylie Barnes (Belle) trouble from the beginning.
During rehearsals, Romeo-Adcock met privately with Kyle and Jaylie to rehearse their kiss.
“There’s no faking it,” he told them two weeks before showtime, referencing the line in the script that called it the kiss we’ve all been waiting for. “This is the moment.”
Romeo-Adcock spent a lot of time working with students on creating a sense of intimacy on stage. It’s always been difficult, but in a world where it’s easier to look into your phone than someone’s eyes and make a joke than be vulnerable, kissing a friend on stage poses a particular challenge.
“It’s just a kiss,” he said, as if that made it easier. “It’s just love.”
The pair were able to get the kiss down pretty quickly by remembering what Romeo-Adcock told them: tilt their heads, don’t lunge, don’t rush.
“If we don’t get the build-up, the kiss means nothing,” Romeo-Adcock explained.
On opening night, the scene drew tears from the audience.
As they gathered for the curtain call during a standing ovation, the cast’s smiles were triumphant, giddy. Then they raced through costume changes to greet the parents, grandparents, siblings and friends who’d come to support them. Asked how they were feeling while they zoomed by, they responded with, “Great!” and “Amazing!”
“I feel really accomplished,” a beaming Kyle said, his mask forgotten somewhere backstage.
Nearby, Jaylie slowly gathered the pieces of her many costumes from where she’d thrown them in a hallway during the show. In a room full of perfectionists who are often their own hardest critics, she was already looking ahead to the next performance.
“I feel OK,” she said. “I just hope tomorrow goes better.”
But most seemed free to revel in the moment. Back in their classroom, Romeo-Adcock stood at the front of the room and one by one accepted hugs from the students. Many held back tears. They shouted over each other in the fray, about the moments when they thought they were goners for sure, about plans to celebrate Jordan’s 17th birthday afterward.
All the pressure of their futures, the anxiety of getting it right and the drama of being a high school student melted away — at least for a moment — and they let themselves feel something they usually don’t believe they deserve to feel: pride.
Just for a few minutes. There were more shows to do.
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