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Arts school did community proud

April 15, 2011

Leave it to kids to settle a dispute among adults.

It was one weekend in April, yes, but it might have been the most meaningful weekend in Hagerstown since 1996, when Otis Rush, John Hammond and company helped put Hagerstown on the musical map by ushering in Western Maryland Blues Fest.

Probably a lot of people, and by a lot of people I mean me, thought the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts was overreaching by choosing to perform "Phantom of the Opera," a complex musical that's taken the place of "Cats" as the longest-running Broadway production.

But one of the glories of youth is the height of the mountains you can climb when no one has yet told you that you can't. And for Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, this was a high-octane statement that its founders were right in their belief that a specialized, downtown arts school could rewrite the rules of education.

I doubt the kids felt any pressure beyond opening-night jitters — but it was there, considering the amount of criticism the expensive, specialized school has been subjected to since its opening last year.

And Merrick Jensen, as the female lead Christine, might not realize it, but she probably did more for downtown Hagerstown in one opening night than dozens of us old fogies have done over the past two decades as we've tried to find a silver bullet for downtown revitalization.

Nothing that theater instructor Ruth Ridenour directs should surprise us anymore, but still ...

This was a venue that surprised us with a lot of talent and excellence, from Ashley Warfield's cheeky prima donna shtick that opened the show to the live orchestra, to the set in the aquatic catacombs to the costumes in Masquerade and everything in between.

The school is the strong suggestion that what we do in the arts is every bit as valuable as what we do in other classrooms throughout the school system. Students should not be subjected to a second-rate education, or treated as extracurricular afterthoughts, merely because their talents lie in theater, music, dance, art or literature.

I don't think too many people left The Maryland Theatre over the weekend thinking, "Yeah, that was good, but I'd rather those kids just stick to studying algebra."

And while the educational success of Hagerstown's "Phantom" deserves top billing, the effect the show had on the community as a whole needs to be considered as well. The theater was packed to the gills with people who represented one of the most diverse cross-sections of Washington County you are ever likely to see.

Folks from every walk of life and every corner of the county were in attendance. Some of them probably hadn't been to downtown Hagerstown in so long they had to activate their GPS to get there. And ask the city's restaurant owners how business was this weekend and whether they'd like to see more arts school-related events.

When so much seems to be dividing us in society today, the students who put on this show brought us together as one community. Because students come from all across the county, it seemed as if everyone knew somebody who had a connection to the show. People had been talking about it all week.

It was important that "Phantom" generate buzz before the show, of course, but it might have been more important that it generate buzz afterward — which it did. And more than any other comment, people were saying this: "I didn't know we had that kind of talent around here."

Well, we do. And that should be the lasting message of the performance.

We hear so much today about how public schools are a wreck and education in this country is a mess. It's become a cliché. You even have people who haven't themselves been inside a school in 40 years talking about the poor state of education.

The danger is that when we smear education, we smear the kids in the process. We make it sound as if it's impossible to succeed, or impossible to flourish. Last weekend's production reminds us that there is indeed a lot of talent in our schools and that this talent is being successfully nurtured in our school system.

In this way, theater becomes a spokesman for students in this county with a talent for math, science and language. Because we doubtless have many talented kids in those areas as well, and we can trust that it is being developed to its fullest potential.

"Phantom of the Opera" taught us a lot of things and reminded us of others. Most notably, it presented us with a reason to be optimistic about our people, our community and our town. It was colorful, resplendent and uplifting. It was a weekend when the glitter in Potomac Street seemed to be justified. Let's hope for many more weekends just like it.



Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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