A great show and all that jazz from the Gas Lamp Teens Players this weekend

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Stephen R. Buntrock and Kristy Graves co-direct the Gas Lamp Teens Players production of ‘Chicago.’

GLEN RIDGE, NJ — The Gas Lamp Teens Players will present the musical “Chicago” on Friday, Feb. 3, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 4, at 1 and 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 5, at 1 p.m. The show will be co-directed by Kristy Graves and Stephen R. Buntrock and staged at Ridgewood Avenue School, 235 Ridgewood Ave. in Glen Ridge. To purchase tickets, visit gaslampplayers.org/vlt26705.htm

The Gas Lamp Teens version of “Chicago” is based on the 1975 Broadway musical directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. The story takes place during the early 1920s Jazz Age and revolves around popular, true-to-life tabloid reporting of female murderers, their trials, their convictions and how their ordeals made a buck for some people.

In an interview before a recent rehearsal, Buntrock said he and Graves have previously co-directed. It is their fifth show together.

“It’s give and take,” Buntrock said of the relationship. “First of all, she’s an amazing chess player who knows how to create and move ensembles, create images, and push forward the storyline with groups. I am in awe of her.”

Buntrock said they began their collaboration with a production of “Les Miserables” five years ago and just kept going. Like any duo, there are sometimes conflicts, but with Gas Lamp, their agreement is: whatever is best for the teens. 

Buntrock also teaches elementary school dramatic arts in Newark at North Star Academy. He pointed out that the challenge with directing and teaching the dramatic arts to teenagers is the students’ “endorphins,” chemicals released in the brain to inhibit pain and promote a feeling of well-being.

Case in point: When directing a Gas Lamp teen show, he said he never gets the opportunity to experience a performance before showtime because a teen cast has lots of reserve in the gas tank that combusts at curtain time.

“In rehearsals, they are about at their 85-percent energy level,” he said. “With an audience, they’re at 120 percent. Sometimes, you can be working with them when their talent makes you stop and you just let them go and there’s not a thing you can improve.”

Buntrock said teen drama students generally fall into two categories. One is the student bitten by the acting bug, who is drawn to the stage because it provides a sense of family. The second group is inhabited by youngsters, talented in the dramatic arts, who want to develop their craft. 

Buntrock had praise for the student dancers in the Gas Lamp “Chicago.” He said they were immensely talented “and the most cohesive group I’ve ever seen at Gas Lamp.” He credited choreographers Steven and Emily Hogle for doing “an amazing job with Bob Fosse’s choreography.”

Buntrock also acknowledged a fine line between the teens having fun and getting the necessary work done. In rehearsal, he said, they must keep in mind that between the curtain going up and coming down, only they will be on stage, and only what they do will be remembered — nothing more and no one else. Nonetheless, anyone planning on attending a performance this weekend of “Chicago” is encouraged to bring extra hosiery, because a confident Buntrock said the acting is “going to knock your socks off.”

“It’s a very heavy ensemble show,” he said. “No one can drop the ball, and no one will. And I have to say, people are paying to see this show and they will get their money’s worth and more.”

Buntrock also confided that he felt it to be a great honor that his young actors trusted him with their skills.

“It’s going to be an exciting night,” he said.

Buntrock is a veteran Broadway performer, having appeared in the original productions of “Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Beauty and the Beast,” among other well-received shows. He said stage directing is “home” to him, but teaching drama in school is different from directing teen community theater.

“When I teach in school, there’s a specificity that must come across,” he said. “For the third- and fourth-graders, it’s encouragement for them to do more than they think they can. I push them because I believe that if you don’t teach students how to use their voices, the brilliance of their thoughts may be lost.”

Whatever the age of the child, Buntrock said, directing is mentoring to him. He wants to provide every child with a sense of accomplishment, the knowledge they have made new friends, the achievement of a new level of self-confidence and trust in people, and the feeling that they are a little more grown up.