Three O’Fallon performers are scaling greater heights now that the all-state production of the musical “Big Fish” is headed to the International Thespian Festival this summer.
Bennett English, a junior at O’Fallon Township High School, who played the lead Edward Bloom, and his younger brother, Paxton English, who played his son, along with Christina Jones, an OTHS senior who is part of the ensemble, are the only downstate performers in the musical, which received nearly perfect scores during the Illinois High School Theatre Festival in January.
This is the first time an Illinois all-state production has been invited to perform at ITF, which is the nation’s leading high school theater festival, sponsored by the Educational Theatre Association.
The “nationals” will take place at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska June 25-30. The highly coveted invitation signals achievement of superior work.
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“It’s a real honor, because we send screening teams out across the U.S. and Canada during the school year, and only 11 are selected to present their shows on the main stage,” said Nancy Brown, Educational Theatre Association’s director of educational programs.
The production included 107 student actors, technicians and musicians, who represented 45 different high schools throughout Illinois, but mostly from the Chicago area.
The cast features 12 principal roles and 30 in the ensemble, out of 345 students from 57 different high schools who auditioned and interviewed to take part.
“It’s my ultimate dream role,” Bennett English said. “I’m so excited to keep making memories with my cast family. We’re all so close and I’m excited to continue that relationship.”
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 on the Illinois State University stage three months ago, and now this opportunity has presented itself.
“I’m so excited for the chance to be able to continue this role. I really, really feel a strong connection to him, now more than ever. having worked on this role for almost two years now, we have such a bond. There’s no other character I’d rather be,” he said.
The musical, which ran on Broadway in fall 2013, is based on the 2003 Southern gothic fantasy-adventure movie directed by Tim Burton. It features fairy tale vignettes, but at heart is a story about fathers and sons.
Edward is a traveling salesman who weaves tall tales about fantastical people and escapades, combining fantasy and spectacle.
John August wrote both the play and movie adaptations based on David Wallace’s 1998 book, “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions.” The music and lyrics are by Andrew Lippa, who is known for “The Addams Family” and “The Wild Party.”
Bennett traveled to Chicago once a month five times to participate in intensive rehearsal weekends, working with 15 teachers and theater professionals.
“Our all-state company members are simply outstanding individuals,” said director LaDonna Wilson of Champaign Central High School.
“We received nearly perfect scores, which rarely happens, and were chosen to be a main stage show,” she said.
“This company embodies the most loving and supportive group of teenagers I have ever encountered. Their performances mirrored their generosity of spirit and collaboration. They completely earned the honor,” she said.
Wilson said working with the three O’Fallon students was a pleasure.
“I can't express how impressed I was with their commitment and heart. Their talent is huge, but their love for their fellow company members was even larger. I am so proud of Bennett, Christina, and Paxton as artists and as people,” Wilson said.
Bennett, who recently starred in the title role of OTHS’s spring musical “Shrek,” likes continuing the “Big Fish” experience.
“I’m beyond thankful for this great piece of work to be admitted into the International Thespian Festival. I think we bring a lot to the table. We will be able to spread the many wonderful messages displayed in this show,” he said.
He is one of 10 finalists in the prestigious eighth annual Teen Talent Showcase sponsored by the Fox Performing Arts Charitable Foundation, which will take place on April 28 at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis.
Christina Jones, who is in the ensemble, won the competition last year, and an $8,000 scholarship. She recently competed on “American Idol,” receiving a golden ticket for Hollywood Week, which cut contestants from 169 to 24. She was in the last 50 singers, however, but was among the 26 dropped for the final 24 on April 2.
Paxton, who attends Moye Elementary School, enjoyed being part of the production.
“I am hoping and wishing every day we can fundraise to get to be together again with our theatre family. I had the best time of my life and can’t wait to be together again!”
Terica English, mother of Bennett and Paxton, said this is an expensive endeavor. The company is raising money to transport more than 100 high school students to the event. It will cost about $3,000 for each student, so there is a GoFundMe site: gofundme.com/59vd3g0
Other efforts are underway, too. She is taking orders for her famous cinnamon rolls.
“It’s a week long, so it’s very expensive to attend. We are fundraising like crazy,” Terica English said.
ITF celebrates student achievement in the performing arts, bringing together more than 4,000 high school drama students and their teachers for a weeklong immersion in workshops and interaction with colleges, industry leaders and Broadway professionals.
The 11 honorees this year are:
▪ “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” by Denver School of the Arts in Denver, Col.
▪ “Bright Star” by West Orange High School in Winter Garden, Fla.
▪ “Big Fish” by Illinois All-State cast and crew
▪ “Newsies” by Floyd Central High School in Floyds Knobs, Ind.
▪ “Trap” by Olathe South High School in Olathe, Kan.
▪ “One Man, Two Guvnors” by Blue Valley North High School in Overland Park, Kan.
▪ “Celtic Tales” by Paola High School in Paola, Kan.
▪ “Urinetown” by Pittsburg High School in Pittsburg, Kan.
▪ “Silent Sky” by Mt. Carmel Academy in New Orleans, La.
▪ “The Visit” by Edina High School in Edina, Minn.
▪ “Freaky Friday” by Bradford High School in Kenosha, Wisc.
For more information, visit schooltheatre.org.