O'Fallon Progress

OTHS thespian selected for lead role at state festival play

Brothers Paxton English and Bennett English, who star in the all-state production of “Big Fish” this weekend.
Brothers Paxton English and Bennett English, who star in the all-state production of “Big Fish” this weekend. For the Progress

Bennett English will find out what it’s like to be a big fish in a big pond this week.

Bennett, an O’Fallon Township High School junior, is playing the lead character, Edward Bloom, in the all-state production of the musical “Big Fish.”

The show will be performed four times at the 43rd annual Illinois High School Theater Festival Jan. 11-13 at Illinois State University.

The Illinois Theatre Association’s annual event is the world’s largest and oldest non-competitive high school festival, and draws 4,000 students, teachers, industry representatives, exhibitors and volunteers each year.

Bennett has never been before, and is grateful for this experience.

“I’ve learned so much. There is so much to do, and it’s going to be a lot of fun,” he said.

For the past five months, Bennett has traveled to Chicago for a long weekend of rehearsals that would last 12 hours each day.

“It has been so amazing, beyond anything I could have imagined,” he said. “It’s been so much hard work, but I wouldn’t trade it.”

Bennett, his younger brother Paxton, who plays his son Will, and Christina Jones of OTHS, who is in the ensemble, are the only youngsters from the metro-east in the cast.

The cast features 12 principal roles and 30 are in the ensemble, out of 345 students from 57 different high schools who auditioned and interviewed to take part.

Most of the cast, crew and orchestra are from the Chicago area. Two Edwardsville students were selected for the crew.

English, who had played the lead in OTHS’s musical “Big Fish” last spring as a sophomore, was eager to reprise one of his favorite roles.

“A friend called to tell me about the audition. I didn’t think they’d take a chance on a newcomer, but I thought it would be good experience to audition,” he said.

Already a seasoned performer, Bennett had been through tough auditions before, but this was on a bigger scale. He was among 11 guys called back, and was in awe of the talent he saw.

“They could have thrown a ball, and anyone who caught it would have been perfect for the role,” he said.

But he was thrilled to get the opportunity. “It’s my ultimate dream role,” he said.

“Last year, when the musical was over, he said he was not ready to leave this character. And then this came along,” his mother Terica said.

The musical, which ran on Broadway in fall 2013, is based on the 2003 Southern gothic fantasy-adventure movie directed by Tim Burton.

Edward is a traveling salesman who weaves tall tales about fantastical people and escapades, combining fantasy and spectacle, but at heart “Big Fish” is a story about fathers and sons. It features fairy tale vignettes, with such characters as a giant, witch, mermaid and werewolf.

John August, who wrote the movie screenplay based on David Wallace’s 1998 book, “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions,” also wrote the book for the musical. The music and lyrics are by Andrew Lippa, who is known for “The Addams Family” and “The Wild Party.”

“I connect so well with Edward. I feel like I am him on stage. He talks about telling stories, and you’re in them, and there’s a witch and a giant right next to you,” Bennett said.

The show has a high level of tech, Bennett said. The cast receives pages of notes after every rehearsal.

“I love that. The notes are good. An assistant will tell someone if they said ‘darn’ instead of ‘dang.’ That’s how specific they are. They give you things to work on. It’s so great,” he said.

His mother has accompanied her two sons because Paxton, 9, was cast as young Will Bloom.

“It’s an intense three, four days. They spend the whole weekend in rehearsal,” she said. “It’s a really good group of kids. They’re so hard-working.”

Bennett became interested in theater when he was in seventh grade, and cast in “The Beauty and the Beast” at Carriel Junior High School.

Until then, he had played sports, but loved music. He played piano and guitar.

“We had no idea what were in for,” Terica English said, laughing.

“I loved it so much,” Bennett said.

He has participated in high school productions, and will be the lead in the OTHS musical this spring, “Shrek.” He has also been cast in musicals at Looking Glass Playhouse, playing Prince Eric in “The Little Mermaid” and one of the brothers in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

He also performs in the OTHS Show Choir.

“It’s tough,” he said. “I am more fit and burn more calories in show choir than I did in sports.”

The Englishes traveled to Normal Monday, and the dress rehearsal was Wednesday night. Four sold-out performances are set — two on Friday and two on Saturday at the Braden Auditorium in the Bone Student Center.

The festival’s theme is “The Power of Transformation,” and executive director Nathaniel Haywood said because theatre is a unique force that connects everyone, participants will be transformed not just into an ensemble, but also into family.

“The fabulous cast, crew, orchestra, and production team of this year’s All-State Production, ‘Big Fish,’ are telling a moving story about how stories transform us, are becoming characters of spectacle and heart and grit and love, and will never be the same as a result of what they have experienced and shared with you,” he said in his program notes.

Bennett said he has lived with this musical for a year, but his enthusiasm has never wane.

“This is the first time I have never gotten tired of a show. I still listen to the music. I am part of 14 different songs. It’s vocally demanding,” he said.

Terica said she became a fan when she first saw it. “The second the music started, I was in tears. It’s sad, it’s encouraging, it has funny parts,” she said. “We’ve listened to it daily for a year, too.”

The show, which starred two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz, a St. Louis native, ran for 34 previews and 98 performances on Broadway, after a pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago.

“I don’t know why it did not do so well on Broadway,” Bennett said.

Bennett, 16, said he was excited when Paxton was cast, too.

“I am so happy he gets to play my son, because we have a connection,” he said.

Paxton attends Moye Elementary School.

“I like to do shows. I just got hooked,” he said.

Terica and her husband, Andrew, have six children; Bennett is the oldest and her youngest is 6. “All the younger kids just love to hear Bennett sing and see him on stage.

Bennett said he enjoys the work.

The state production team thinks the show is contest-worthy. “Big Fish” may be selected for the nationals in Nebraska.

“This is the first year that they’ve submitted. We’ll be adjudicated at the last performance on Saturday,” he said.

The festival includes over 150 workshops and 25 productions performed by high schools — 189 high schools across the state will attend.

After the state festival, Bennett will be rehearsing for “Shrek,” which will be performed March 22-24.

“I am really excited about it. The music is so good,” he said.

He’ll also be practicing for the All-State Choir competition, and plans to audition for the Teen Talent Showcase in St. Louis, which is presented by the Fox Performing Arts Foundation.

“I love to do hard things. I think theater is really hard work, and you’re always challenged. I’ve been able to play these goal roles. It’s good to keep busy with shows,” Bennett said.

For more information about the theater festival, visit the website, www.ihstf.org