Another opening, another show

(Original publication: May 15, 2001)


Mark Ruhala has no interest in stage mothers.

For the artistic director of the Broadway Training Center, in Hastings-on-Hudson, it's the kids who matter most the children and teens with the burning energy and the big voices, whose urge to perform surpasses all else in their lives. Why take all that talent and channel it into a parent-driven hunt for work in TV commercials or feature films? Isn't there an alternative?

Absolutely, says Ruhala, whose school celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. "My philosophy is not to push them into the professional world," he says. "I don't feel better if I have kids in the business. I feel better if I see a kid who grows into a really cool person."

It seems to be working. For the group of teens and pre-teens who gathered recently in the school's airy studio to rehearse for an upcoming musical revue "Songs for a New World," by Jason Robert Brown, to be presented this weekend at the Irvington Town Hall Theater drama has become a vehicle for personal liberation.
"Before I came here, in school I was made fun of a lot and I just took it in," said Kate Bolger, a 12-year-old from Hastings. "Now, I'm more confident. I'm more spontaneous."

Victoria Haydock, a tall 16-year-old from Yonkers, has been coming back for the past 6 years. "In grammar school, I had low self-esteem," she said. "Now I'm running for vice president at my school."

Even shyness seems to be on the wane for some students, proving one of Ruhala's theories: "Shy people are drawn to the theater as a way to overcome the shyness," he says.

There's Kira Mason, a 12-year-old from Hastings who used to suffer from severe stage fright, and who will now sing a solo in the senior ensemble's upcoming production. And there's Lacey Gutekunst, of Yonkers, a petite 11-year-old with an enormous, smoldering voice. "When I was really little, I was shy," she said. "Now I can talk to people."

And talk they do. The 14 members of the school's senior ensemble seem to connect completely with the 42-year-old former Broadway performer, whose casual attire (T-shirt, shorts, sandals) and double pierced ears (a hoop on each side) make him appear more MTV than suburban drama coach.

Take the case of the questionable lyrics in a song performed by Victoria Haydock and 14-year-old Samantha Barnard of Ardsley. After they rehearse the number a spellbinding piece that has the girls towering on high stools as they sing to a fictional character named Murray Ruhala looks down at his notebook. He hasn't decided yet if he will allow them to keep the language intact or make some substitutions. What do they think? "Keep it!" the students scream. Ruhala smiles.

He is happy they feel so passionate about the show. When Ruhala first saw "Songs for a New World" in the mid-1990s, at the Helen Hayes Performing Arts Center in Nyack, "I couldn't get out of my seat for five or 10 minutes," he says. "I laughed, I cried, I had this wonderful ride."

Ruhala, who serves as the show's director and choreographer, hopes that under the guidance of vocal coach Valerie DiLorenzo and musical director Fiona Santos, the show will again dazzle audiences when his students take to the stage, accompanied by a five-piece group of professional musicians.

In recent weeks, they have stepped up the rehearsal schedule, practicing on school nights and on weekends. They sing, they tap-dance, they jot down pointers into wire-bound notebooks. And Ruhala is confident they will succeed.

It all goes back to the beginning. When students apply for a spot at the Broadway Training Center, Ruhala avoids stage-mother problems by conducting interviews that include both parent and child. "I keep my focus on the child," he says, "and then I observe the parent-child dynamic, and that tells me a lot about what I'm going to be able to do with the kid."
Ruhala also sits down with each potential student and presents three
questions: "Are you smart? Do you like to work hard? Do you like to learn? If yes is the answer, they have a real good chance with me."

The kids on stage this weekend at Irvington Town Hall have a good chance: They all said yes.What: "Songs for a New World," a musical revue by Jason Robert Brown, performed by the Broadway Training Center's senior musical theater ensemble.

Where: Irvington Town Hall Theater, 85 Main St., Irvington.
When: 8 p.m., Friday; 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $20 adults, $10 seniors and children ages 12 and under. Discounts for groups of 10 or more.
Reservations: 914-478-5825.

songs for a new world