However you throw us, we will stand
Disneys The Descendants DM Young Artists' Theatre

October 10, 2021

DMYAT musical about next-generation Disney progeny delivers

By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz

Another Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre chapter begins anew at their usual performing venue as they present Disney’s Descendants the Musical at the Stoner Theater in Des Moines Performing Arts’ Civic Center. To say that this highly energized volunteer company is excited about returning to its home is an understatement. That energy radiates from their performance, washing over the audience and instilling that joy of live performance throughout the performing hall.

Based on the highly successful movie musical first presented on the Disney Channel, Disney’s Descendants the Musical brings a bevy of fairytale heroes and villains, along with their offspring, together in a show filled with compelling music, memorable characters, and plenty of meaningful lessons. When Ben, the son of Belle and King Adam (The Beast), decides to proclaim his first act of benevolence in honor of his pending coronation, the lines between the heroes and the villains becomes blurred. Ben’s bold act is to invite the children of Maleficent, Grimhilde the Evil Queen, Cruella De Vil, and Jafar to attend school with the children of his world. The ensuing distrust and conflict lead to ethical choices, resolutions and consequences in this rousing musical and story format.

Des Moines Young Artists’ Theatre (DMYAT) holds true to its mission to “introduce students and their families to the transformative power of live theatre and the arts.” The entire process, from selecting shows to rehearsals and pre-production preparation to performances, revolves around providing a safe, encouraging environment for next-generation actors to develop their interests and passion in theatre. For novice attendees to a DMYAT show, visiting their website and understanding their mission and values is an important first step in understanding who DMYAT is.

The DMYAT production of Disney’s Descendants the Musical displays a wide range of stage experience, and the process that its performers and production team have taken. Through the show, there are many flashes of next-level abilities, with some strong, consistent performances anchoring the show. These committed and energetic young performers have completely immersed themselves into learning their lines, their songs, the choreography and the power of ensemble stage work. They share that joy of performing with their audiences, and the audiences respond in kind; enthusiastically and supportively. The choreography, team produced by co-directors Sam Melz and Haley Vanness, was diverse and delivered with great energy. Most of the leads showed a stage presence that comes with experience. Ensemble numbers were belted with a similar commitment in delivery.

Some basic stagecraft elements could have been tightened up. These include coaching the actors to better use their stage voices. There were times when actors were facing upstage when delivering dialogue. At other times, microphones weren’t at a proper level of amplification. With a pre-recorded sound track, musical direction has the opportunity to work with each soloist/featured singer to help them maximize their developing vocals, which seemed to be inconsistent in this show. Each of these production areas needed more guidance, direction and hands-on work, and will improve as DMYAT returns from its disruptive COVID-created hiatus. The foundational process for DMYAT participants was knocked off-track, and now this dedicated company can find its previous focus and reestablish that pipeline for developing and training young creatives.

Even with these extra challenges, DMYAT’s Descendants presented a delightfully eclectic display of passion for the arts. The core of what makes this enterprise click remains vibrant: these young artists are impassioned about getting involved in performance and production.

Melz and Vanness wrapped their imaginative arms around a big show, succeeding in giving their ensemble enough complex movement to challenge them, while bringing choreographic variety to match the music score’s diverse styles. The Stoner Theater is a space that presents unique blocking obstacles. There were times when much of the audience lost delivery from the aforementioned oversights. Melz and Vanness overall did a fine job in bringing DMYAT back to the stage. Special recognition goes to many of the costumes and wigs used – including Maleficent’s signature horned, black regalia, and Fairy Godmother’s bright, colorful frock.

Performers bringing captivating ownership to their roles included: the quartet of evil parent offspring, Dawson Huinker (as the conflicted, nuanced Mal), Addyson Hall (as a delightful Evie), Miles Burrell (bringing an appealing sense of timing and delivery to his Carlos), and Mar Feitelson (capturing the fun of his Jay with excellent stage presence); Alex Siegle (as the commanding, wicked Maleficent); Me’Lisa Dudley (as the doting fashionista Cruella De Vil); Tatum Gloden (in wonderful wickedness as Grimhilde, the Evil Queen); Caitlin Como (creating a divinely confident Fairy Godmother); JJ McLaughlin (whose regal Ben had an appealingly natural ease of delivery); Ava Bolt (in all of her princess-ly entitlement); Camden Engel (wrapping himself fully as the spoiled prince, Chad); and, Vaughn McIver (embracing majestic poise as Queen Belle). As each these and the other performers had their moments to shine, they did, giving us the ebb and flow that comes from good ensemble stage work.

Despite the roughness and raw qualities of this DMYAT show, that vibrant core commitment to performance art is exemplified in Disney’s Descendants the Musical. The process is the foundation of their production mission. Different productions achieve different levels of artistic success. As supporters and audience members, we have the privilege of experiencing what often are the first development steps as these young performers gain experience, and their talents grow. Is this Broadway, or great theatre? No, but it is good theater, and worth your time and participation. School age attendees especially will appreciate this show, presented by their peers. As Suzanne Farrell (American ballerina) was quoted in a 2003 interview, “Good theater should always send people away feeling changed.” DMYAT delivers good theater, and the change they provide is positive for you and our community.

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