x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Make a big noise

The students of Dubai Modern High School will take their adaptation of the Queen musical We Will Rock You to Bangalore later this month.

Students from the Dubai Modern High School perform in Rock U, an adaptation of the hit Queen musical We Will Rock You.
Students from the Dubai Modern High School perform in Rock U, an adaptation of the hit Queen musical We Will Rock You.

The door to the dressing room banged shut and Darien Gomes, the star of Dubai Modern High School's adaptation of We Will Rock You, emerged. He had traded the studded leather jacket he wears as Galileo Figaro for a T-shirt, but his thick black hair was still spiked up in a mohawk. Teenagers rushed back and forth in the corridor backstage at Dubai Modern, many of them still wearing their heavy stage make-up, with thick bands of dark black eyeliner painted across their eyes. The cast had just come running offstage after their seventh performance in four days, and the atmosphere was one of giddy exhaustion. The show's local run was over, but the students still had one last show to look forward to. That show, on December 30, will take place 2,702 kilometres from Dubai, at the Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Bangalore.

"It's the only decent hall in Bangalore. It's in the shape of a violin, if you please," said Kevin Oliver, the director of the production. Dedicated to the memory of a Karnatakan violinist, the building is indeed an enormous violin, complete with strings. "It's very old," continued Oliver, who is from Bangalore. "Even I have acted on that stage." As Gomes, the star of the show, came out into the hallway, he was met with high fives and even a few cheers from his classmates. "You were awesome, absolutely awesome," a young man with short cropped hair said as he walked past. Soon Gomes was being hoisted on the shoulders of two friends, as if he had just scored the winning goal in a football match - for a moment his head bobbed above a crowd of some 50 shouting teenagers.

High school musicals do not often tour - but Rock U, Oliver's adaptation of the Queen musical, is not your typical school production. The cast of 44 - composed of students and even a few teachers - rehearsed furiously for three months. The costumes were donated by Splash, and the make-up done by local professionals. Oliver estimates that the production cost Dh150,000 - but much of that was covered by the show's sponsors, whose advertisements were hung in the lobby outside the theater.

"Word has reached Bangalore already that the show is coming," said Gomes, who like many others in the cast has relatives in Bangalore. "My friends are calling their friends" he said. "This is the first time my cousins, aunts and uncles will see me perform because most of them live in different parts of the world. They've only heard that I sing." Sharon Lobo, the primary school music teacher who plays the Killer Queen in the production, will also draw a crowd in Bangalore. "It's my hometown so I'm very excited. A lot of my friends are coming to see the show," she said. "I have grand-aunts who are like 80-plus who want to come and see it. They're like: 'We're not going to miss a Kevin Oliver production,' because they've seen him do stuff since the time he lived there."

The decision to stage the Queen musical was announced last spring, and many of the students, determined to land roles, learnt the material over the summer. "I really wanted the lead, and I knew I would be going for auditions, so I just kept singing the songs," said Malavika Das, who plays the female lead, Scaramouche. "Everyone wanted to know each and every song just in case they were asked to sing it," Gomes chimed in.

Competition was tough, and because the show is travelling, Oliver had to keep the cast numbers down. "I've never worked with such a small cast. We always have a hundred singing in the choir, and 50 dancers," he said. "Schools always like to promote more kids on stage." But that didn't stop him auditioning as many students as possible. "I made every single student, whether he wanted to or she wanted to, come in and sing for me," Oliver said. "Once I find that they can sing, then I say: 'You can sing. Why are you not taking part?' They all have egos, you know - if they feel that a teacher is saying: 'You can sing, you can do it,' they give it a try."

In the end, Oliver auditioned about 300 students for just over 40 roles. "It was a tough one to crack," he said. Oliver, who works as the cultural co-ordinator for Global Education Management Systems, the company that owns Dubai Modern, admits to being something of a perfectionist. "I'm so nit-picky about everything, right down to the look," he said over tea in the school's lounge. According to Oliver, he begged the Dubai fashion retailer Splash to sponsor the clothes. "Their last fashion show had a completely futuristic look to it - that kind of worked for me."

Though Oliver selected the Queen musical, it has been a popular choice with the students. "Everyone wants to do Queen," said Aparna Naresh, a senior who plays the role of Meatloaf in the show. Like many of the actors, who pursue singing and studying with the utmost seriousness, Naresh does not plan to make music her career. "I definitely want to carry on with music, but definitely not as a career," she said. "I actually want to do psychology."

Like Naresh, Rock U could be the last show for Shoumo Banerji, a lean boy who plays a character named Britney Spears. "Acting is my passion, but taking it as a career is not something I've actually thought about." He is applying to Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania, where he will probably study engineering. "I know for a fact that 90 per cent of [parents] would not want their kids to go into anything performance-orientated," Oliver said, adding that most Indian parents push their children towards more traditional fields like medicine and engineering.

Oliver, who has directed school productions in Dubai off and on for the past 20 years, is known around town as a tough but loveable teacher. "He has this ability to bring out the best in people," Gomes said. "We've gotten so used to the screaming. It's no longer like: 'He has something against me.' It's more like constructive criticism." "We didn't expect it to be easy at all," Naresh said. "But it's the main reason I go to school these days."

During the rehearsals, Oliver, who has something of a cult following among the students, tries to push them as far as he thinks they can go. "I basically can feel their limits, and when I reach a point where I feel 'OK I can't go beyond this', I have to backtrack," he said. "It's a journey that I take with these kids really. They generally are very excited to work with me but it's tough for them because they are really stretched."

That came out during an eleventh- hour rehearsal in late November. After the Eid holiday, there would be only one week of rehearsals before opening night, and the cast was still struggling to master the two hardest songs, Bohemian Rhapsody and We Are the Champions. "Sometimes you're so shouty, there is no quality," Oliver said with a dramatic wave over We Are the Champions. "This is our last song and it's the worst song. Can we try it once more?"

The cast, some in blue jeans and T-shirts, others wearing their school uniforms - navy blue trousers, a pink tie, and blazers embossed with the school emblem - stood in a single-file row looking bemused. "You're losing steam towards the end. I know you're tired and it's the end of the week, but it's the last chance for us to nail it." A few weeks later, on opening night, Oliver addressed the cast backstage, trying to soothe some last-minute nerves and get the cast energised. "It's going to be a rocking show, so get that audience really rocking," he said, before leading the kids in a breathing exercise. "Britney, where are you, I want a better performance than this morning," he said, looking around for Banerji.

Soon the lights went down in the theatre, and a booming voice came over the loudspeaker. The audience stood for the UAE national anthem and then the Indian national anthem. Then came the moment everyone was waiting for: two disco balls spun from above the stage as loud rock music began to play. The show opened with an inspired rendition of Radio Ga Ga: the girls were dressed in mod black and white dresses with impossibly high black heels, and the boys wore silver pants and vests that shimmered in the light. Video screens behind them said "Gaga" in big colourful letters.

When the song ended, Gomes came on stage to sing Queen's 1984 hit I Want to Break Free. He was soon joined by Das, in the role of Scaramouche, a like-minded rebel whose attire - all black, with Converse trainers - is meant to contrast her with the brainwashed teenybopper Ga Ga girls, decked out in puffy bright jackets and heels. For the next hour, the crowd clapped and cheered along with a succession of Queen hits as the musical's plot - pitting the "bohemian" rebels, who yearn to rock, against the evil Killer Queen, determined to stop them - careened towards its inevitable conclusion: Gomes and Das rediscover rock 'n' roll as smoke billowed on to the stage and a pillar (at "Wembley Stadium") exploded to reveal an electric guitar just in time for most of the cast to sing We Will Rock You.

As the show ended, everyone came on stage to sing Bohemian Rhapsody as an encore, and the cast pulled it off seamlessly. "It's one of the toughest songs ever," Oliver said after the show, clearly pleased with opening night. As he sat with some of his friends who came to see the premiere, he gushed with pride about the students. "Darien was wonderful - and such a cute character also," he said, with a satisfied grin.

klewis@thenational.ae