By Krista Knight
Directed by Alec Volz
Reviewed by Craig Nolan Highley
Entire contents are copyright © 2011, Craig Nolan Highley. All rights reserved.

Anyone who has lived to be an adult has lived through life as a teenager. And chances are they have also experienced the heartaches that go hand in hand with the difficulties therein. Walden Theatre has captured that spirit of pathos all too well in their current production of Krista Knight’s Phantom Band. Sort of the result of what you’d get if you crossed The Breakfast Club with The Twilight Zone, a talented cast brings this heartfelt and at times heartbreaking story to life under the sure direction of Alec Volz.
Raylene (Callie Trawick) is determined to create a marching band in her senior year at Santa Cruz High School, an institution plagued with all of the teen anxieties, fervent desires, and fiercely protected secrets you’d expect. This would be a difficult enough task without the arrival of Camille (Rosemary Wilson), a British exchange student with the classical musical mastery Raylene and her friends are all striving for. But as the story progresses, we learn there is more to Camille than meets the eye as the real world collides with the metaphysical. Ultimately, the lesson learned is that there is no easy solution to life’s problems, even with access to the supernatural.
Knight’s script is oddly structured. The first half of the story plays out like a typical teen “dramedy,” setting up the various characters and the problems their lives are throwing at them. There are some hints at the beginning that something otherworldly is going on, but they are so vague and subtle that when the fantastical elements kick in halfway through, the tonal shift is somewhat jarring.  It’s also somewhat difficult following the story’s timeline, as little is said at first to indicate how much time has passed between each scene; for example, at one point the characters all appeared wearing various costumes, and the scene was more than half over before someone mentioned it was Halloween.
Script and story issues, however, are more than made up for by a solid production. I haven’t seen many Walden shows, but I am always impressed by the talent displayed by the young performers – in this case one middle school student and eight high schoolers. There was not a weak member in this cast, but there were some standouts:
Emma Wesslund was amazing in the dual role of sisters Donna (a substance abuser about to hit rock bottom) and Michelle (substitute mom to Donna’s troubled son). She so convincingly conveys the two disparate characters that I didn’t at first realize they were both the same actress! Ciaran Brown is a true joy to watch as woefully nerdy Tint, forced to contend with braces on his teeth that cause him to speak in an almost incomprehensible lisp and not at all fazed to have the useless position of piano player in a marching band. And Jake Nichols gives a heartbreaking performance as Donna’s troubled son Dieter, the emotional center of the piece.
It is also worth noting that when the script calls for the characters to make music, these incredibly talented kids play their own instruments and do so beautifully.
If I have any suggestion at all to improve their performance, it would be to be careful not to rely too heavily on props. Swinging a tennis racket to emphasize a point, for example, or pulling a hat off your head and wringing it in your hands, can be an effective visual. Just be careful not to overdo it or it can easily turn into a crutch.
Alec Volz has done an amazing job of eliciting such strong performances from this group of young actors, and his and Lily Bartenstein’s set and lighting design add a nice touch of eeriness to the proceedings.
Given that this is a student production, I was a little shocked at the adult language (more than a couple of F-bombs were dropped) and themes, so I would hesitate to recommend this to a pre-teen crowd.  But I would imagine that many adults and older teens would strongly relate to a lot of the points made here. So for them, this is a show not to be missed.
Starring Ciaran Brown, Taylor Cowles, Nick Duong, Dion Kohler Jr., Broke Morrison, Jake Nichols, Callie Trawick, Emma Wesslund, and Rosemary Wilson.
Phantom Band

November 10-19
Walden Theatre
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204