Canyon Theatre Guild’s Strangely Distant in Awesometown Proves Live Theatre Can Thrive Amidst Quarantine

(Editor’s Note: I’m thrilled to welcome back Julie Raelyn today for a terrific review of the Canyon Theatre Guild’s online production of Strangely Distant in Awesometown! xo, Mary)

Well, I want to start off by saying these are strange times, indeed. On an indefinite pause are the theatre shows that we know and love. Around this time of year, I would normally be either rehearsing a show I’m in or pulling up to a packed theatre to see friends in a show. With the pandemic, most live theatre venues have had to shut down, and many have opted to find new, creative ways to showcase talent, keep the passion for the arts alive, and keep people entertained during these times.

Such is the case with the new Zoom show I had the pleasure of viewing recently. When this blog last heard from me, I was reviewing a show at the Canyon Theatre Guild called “Something Strange in Awesometown,” a fundraiser show that ties in with a youth workshop, showcasing the talent of Santa Clarita and surrounding area theatre kids/young adults. I now have had the unique privilege to watch the sequel, created out of love for the arts, and necessity to keep children’s programs alive during this time. When I found out they were doing a sequel and it was to be on Zoom, I, having loved the first show, knew I had to tune in.

John Lucewich has been working with the CTG Summer STARs workshop for several years and has written many of the shows that were performed. After a brief break from the writing portion he’s now written and co-directed “Strangely Distant in Awesometown,” with Chelsea Henderson-Jones, also a veteran of leading these workshops. Katrina Negrete assistant directed as well as vocal directed. As in the original show, Lucewich also composed an original score.

This is a very one-of-a-kind show, that was written completely around the fact that it takes place via Zoom, and even incorporates the fact that everyone is mostly staying at home right now.

Some theatres have been performing shows that have been originally for the stage, yet they have adapted them to Zoom. I’ve been watching a lot of these and while some seem to work seamlessly, some do not as well, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag. But you certainly know it’s something special when the show has been written specifically for the Zoom format.

As someone who watched the original “Something Strange,” it was great to see a lot of the same characters and even actors come back, with a handful of them playing brand new characters. Maybe even greater was the opportunity to see new faces take on both established and new characters.

As you may or may not recall from my previous review, Something Strange in Awesometown is about Athena Jones, a teenage girl who discovers she has some supernatural abilities to not only see but fight evil forces of the otherworldly variety. She also makes friends with some of the nicer beings and develops a colorful cast of friends along the way, including her best friend, Valerie Harker, a human.

Strangely Distant opens with Valerie (this time played by Alexa Dell) calling out for Athena, and we soon find out that Athena, along with some others of the supernatural “Scooby Crew” has been incapacitated. We are soon greeted by one of the new characters, Fia (played charismatically by Ryan Rector), trying to explain the situation to the audience. Something has gone horribly wrong and we need to all be on the lookout.

They have opened up what is usually a private zoom meeting to us, the general public, so that we may be in the know on what’s going on. Fia then suggests we go into a “Time Glimpse” so we can all see what has happened to get us to this point where everything is not ok. She explains a “Time Glimpse” is a form of time travel but it’s more that you’re looking at time from the outside, and not necessarily experiencing it.

During the Time Glimpse, we find out that there are spirits that lurk in everyone’s homes called “Kobolds.” They are normally protectors of our home spaces, gentle and non-harmful, but something has caused a large majority of them to go rogue all of a sudden. It is pointed out that since so many people are home right now, the kobolds have grown restless. Their protector job is essentially taken away since no one leaves the house as much anymore due to quarantine.

A good majority of these restless spirits are now somehow using a sleeping spell to essentially send anyone in the spell’s path into an eternal slumber, with not many known ways to break the curse, if any.

We find out that Fia is actually a kobold herself, but explains that she is here to help and that she has not succumbed to the darker side that her fellow kobolds have, and wants to save the humans whom she loves so much.

Popping onto this “zoom meeting/town hall” are some more new characters including a nerdy observer named Greg (Dylan Beck), some tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists, Christy and Pete (Lillian Dawson and James Klein), two fangirls of Athena and Valerie, Felicity and Tristan (played by Nalani Real and Emma Tisdell), and another original character from the first show Leah and Molly (Sarah Lopez and Charlie Spainhower).

There is a lot of “time travel,” and “time glimpsing” going on but Lucewich’s writing glides us through it effortlessly, never getting lost on where the story lies.

We eventually meet our Big Bad of this particular show, Amara (Samuel Bever). Amara is responsible for the kobolds turning “bad.” Kobolds have been around for thousands of years, and as the story goes on we find out that Amara had a long lost human love that he lost due to an illness, and therefore came to hate the “human condition” and wanted to take away any pain humans feel, by putting them into eternal sleep. Bever plays the dual sides of this role gracefully.

Also during the time glimpse, we are reunited with some of my favorites from the original show, all being played by different actors this time. Alex (Bethany Infuso), Susan (Kaitlyn Healy), and the Paseo twins (Grace Morrison and Sarah Dadlani), and of course Athena herself (played both originally and now by Maddie Thompson) are all back. And let me just say that a majority of these actors stepped into already-established roles and took them on with ease and skill. I was honestly blown away by their ability to somehow capture the spirit of the original character, but still make it their own.

Thompson has clearly grown as an actress as well, and the emotions she finds as Athena, as well as some touching friendship moments between her and Valerie, are incredible. Both of them really drew me in.

Athena finds herself at a loss when she realizes her powers won’t do much against the kobolds and is at a lack of a plan for how to break the curse. But never to fear, her team of friends has now become “Radio kids” in their own right, is on the case, and finds themselves in a rush against time to find the solution.

I do wish that I could spend time on each individual character, and there are several not mentioned, but this article would be 20 pages long! I didn’t even get to all the colorful fun ones we meet along the way, each one memorable. Lucewich has created a fantastic ensemble cast, to the extent that each character has a role to play that is either crucial to the story, a necessary comic relief, or significant for character development of another character. While we have a few “main” characters, no one really overshadows another. Not only that, but the cast is also widely diverse in all aspects.

I would also just like to point out that the caliber of talent in these young actors is truly incredible. I felt like I was watching a Nickelodeon show or big-budget production. Casting directors of LA, if you’re out there reading this, I highly encourage you to take a look at some of these upcoming stars. I feel like there are a lot of times where you go to watch children or teen shows, and you don’t always know what to expect. As an adult with no children of my own, who is used to watching mostly adult theatre, I have to say I’ve never been let down by the kids in the Santa Clarita theatre community. They always exceed any expectations and then some.

If you missed this wonderful performance, it is actually still available to
watch online via Facebook. There is also another “written for Zoom” children’s workshop performance coming up, this one by Jennifer Teague and Mark Takoda (revisions/ story additions) by John Lucewich and Chelsea Henderson Jones), called “Tri-Annual: The Day the Tri- Annual Intergalactic Universal Space Bowl, Galaxy Cup, Dance Chili Cook-Off and Marathon Stood Still” and it will premiere this Friday and Saturday, July 31 st and August 1 st at 7 pm. Register HERE.

A Note About Casting from Director John Lucewich

“When taking on Strangely Distant in Awesometown, I knew of the possibility that several cast members of the original show may be returning. I tend to do a clean-slate casting process, meaning that I never precast. Though this show proved difficult to hold that up to, since I knew that the original cast absolutely loved and adored their characters, I felt it is important in the spirit of theatre never to precast. 

I told them on the first day that anyone could audition for any role. Theatre is an experience and an adventure for an actor and each new role is an avenue to take you there. Maddie Thompson (Athena Jones) and David Albee (David Lanes) reclaimed their roles with tight competition. Emma Bates (Mori, O.G. Molly), Paige Noltemeyer (Smiles, O.G. Alex), Ryan Rector (Fia, O.G. Ariana), and Emma Tisdell (Tristian, O.G. Carl) were placed into new roles that we believed would expand and challenge the young actors. 

Alexa Dell (Valerie Harker), Kaitlyn Healey (Susan), Bethany Infuso (Alex), Charlie Spainhower (Molly), Sarah Lopez (Leah), Grace Morrison (Ariana), and Sara Dadlani (Alina) all had to step into the shoes of roles originated by a different actor, some of which were in the workshop with them! We were very clear with all the actors, no matter their role, at the beginning of the rehearsal process: ‘Make the role your own’. 

We didn’t want the performers worrying about what the original actor did with the character. Instead, we described the character to them and allowed for them to give us their own original vision of the character. This not only breathed life into the show, but also breathed new life into these roles, taking them places we may never have found before.”

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