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APRIL FOOL: High school rethinks musical after flap over masks

Charter school backs away from Webber classic following high-powered visit from state leader.

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  • | 9:20 a.m. March 31, 2022
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APRIL FOOL -- A brief visit from Florida’s governor two weeks ago prompted a Sarasota County charter school to back away from plans to produce an Andrew Lloyd Webber classic as its season drama finale, all because of one small, but vital, prop.

A mask.

Sarasota’s Modern Arts School of Karma was halfway through a week of dress rehearsals on March 17 in advance of the April 1 premiere of  “Phantom of the Opera’’ when Gov. Ron DeSantis stopped at the school on Beneva Road during a tour to promote pay raises for teachers.

Following remarks to reporters praising Republican legislators for upping the average teacher salary statewide to $47,000, DeSantis asked to stop into the school’s theater department to watch a few minutes of rehearsal.

“Yes, let’s watch the thespians perform,’’ said school Director Tony Oscar Emmy.

“What did you say?” the governor asked.

“You know, thespians, we say that word all the time around here,’’ Emmy responded. “Thespians, thespians, thespians.’’

“Don’t say thespians,” the governor replied while opening the door to the theater.

Once inside, he immediately strode to the stage and lashed out at senior Dirk Rock, portraying the Phantom alongside junior Astrid McGonnagie as Christine Daae in a romantic scene.

“He walked right past Astrid and came right up to me and told me to take off the mask,’’ Rock said. “His exact words, and I will remember them until the day I die:  ‘C’mon man, it’s ridiculous. It’s nothing but theater.’’’

 Mortified school officials, realizing they were at a point of no return, whisked DeSantis to the theater’s control room to demonstrate a new soundboard purchased with state arts-education funds redirected from a Democratic-sponsored affordable housing program. 

 School officials said the effect was devastating on the drama troupe.

Rock said he just wanted to explain.

“I tried to yell across the theater at him that I knew it was theater, of course it was theater, that this is a theater class and that was the whole point, but by then everyone was scrambling around trying to figure out what to do next, and he was gone,’’ Rock said. “Astrid started crying, said we could do a mask with make-up, and she tried with some foundation and an eye pencil, but it looked like Ronald McDonald or something worse.”

Rock said he had his heart set on the Phantom role since he was 6. The music. The romance. The period formalwear.

He said he first heard the show’s haunting music while riding to Tallahassee in 2010 for a “Summer with Gilbert and Sullivan” camp at Florida State University and he was hooked.  After that trip, Rock said he ditched his plans for an “HMS Pinafore” sailor-suit Halloween costume (“I felt it was my duty”) and dressed as the Phantom seven years in a row from ages 6 to 12, never once hearing a peep about wearing a mask in public.

Since then, he’s seen Phantom of the Opera five times – three times on Broadway, once in Las Vegas with Gilbert Gottfried in the lead role, and \ last summer in London’s West End.  

“I was born to play him,’’ he said of the tormented soul who lives under the stage of a Paris theater in the production based on the 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l'Opéra by Gaston Laroux.

In the days that followed his brush with DeSantis, Rock said he grew sullen, backsliding into quiet nightly performances of “He is an Englishman’’ before bedtime. His parents, fearing further regression, contacted school officials and hid the family's DVD of 1983's “The Pirates of Penzance” starring Kevin Kline and Linda Ronstadt.

The Rocks, school and district officials met and agreed to allow the young actor to anchor whatever production the school could assemble in a short period of time as a replacement show. But fearing the loss of the soundboard, school leaders insisted on a production with no masks.

“Think of me, this was not a case of a prima donna wanting to be a star,’’ he said. “This was my life.’’

Rock’s choices of replacement shows were initially tricky to navigate.

  • Cats?  Masks.
  • An avant-garde mash-up of two classics, one a beloved radio and TV western and the other a 1970s and '80s pop icon’s breakthrough album, entitled The Lone Stranger? Masks.
  • Lion King? Masks.
  • A little-known stage version of Planet of the Apes? Masks.
  • A musical adaptation of the Cher classic, Mask? Well, not exactly masks, but you get the idea. 
  • Beauty and the Beast? Masks.

“Without an audience for my senior year, I’ll just have to learn to be lonely,’’ Rock recalled saying, nearly giving up on his footlight dreams. 

Finally, the school and the family settled on a show so well-known and devoid of face coverings that preparing in less than a month was simple. And safe.

Sarasota Modern Arts School of Karma will present “Our Town’’ with a Friday night show, a Saturday night show and two shows on Sunday through April. The Thornton Wilder play is considered a meta masterpiece, a show within a show that can be staged with little scenery and props and very little dialogue.

Plus, literally every actor knows all the lines.

Rock said he looks forward to portraying the Stage Manager, a central character.

But, he said, he’s learned a valuable lesson in how the real theater works and how outside influences can easily affect those off stage as well as the performers. And he offered a piece of teenaged advice.

“If the governor comes around, don’t wear a mask of any kind,” he said. “Oh, and don’t ever say ‘thespian.’ That seemed to start the whole thing.”




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