By Brittany Zendejas
First love, awkward hugs, jumbling of words, drama and cliques … that’s high school in a few words. But throw in a musical number directed by a passionate teacher, and everything can change. NBC’s latest show “Rise” inspires the audience to reflect on the high school experience while portraying highly relevant themes of today, such as sexuality and abuse. The cast features familiar faces like Josh Radnor, Auli’i Cravalho and Rosie Perez but also has big breakout stars like Damon J. Gillespie and Ted Sutherland.
Inspired by a true story, the drama department is taken over by an unlikely character, English teacher Lou Mazzucchelli (Radnor) who shakes up the drama department of Stanton High School by encouraging the students to embark on a new journey of creativity and explore new ways of self expression. What at first seems like an easy transition turns into a controversy as Mazzuchelli faces backlash from the small conservative town of Stanton after deciding to make “Spring Awakening” the latest musical. The musical tells the story of teenagers discovering the tumultuous journey that is sexuality and the pressures of adolescence into adulthood. Mazzuchelli hopes that by addressing issues such as sex, suicide and abortion, a better understanding will come forth within the Stanton community.
Throughout the show’s run thus far, Mazzuchelli and the students have faced criticism from all angles. As a teacher who is committed to his students, Mazzuchelli is showing that inspiration is possible even by just one person. Robbie (Gillespie), the star quarterback, faces pressure to quit the play and continue with football instead. Simon Saunders (Sutherland), who is a well-known drama buff, is cast as a gay teenager in the play which conflicts with his parents’ conservative views and leads him to question his own sexuality. Lillete (Cravalho) is an outsider who tends to keep to herself, but she steps outside of her bubble to audition for the show and lands the lead role. Proving she’s more than just a Disney actor, Cravalho belts out emotional songs each week but also delivers as a young teenager who hasn’t found her place in the drama department or high school. She and Robbie ignite the expected teen-drama romance as star crossed lovers, but it isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. No, they don’t break out in song at random times when questioning their feelings for each other, but they do experience the awkwardness of high school together in each scene.
It’s refreshing to watch because at one point all of us could relate. Not only does the drama department face criticism, but a lack of funding becomes another roadblock when it comes to the show. The school district’s financial priority is directed to the football team’s new Jumbotron instead of new costumes and props for the drama department. Radnor’s performance of Mazzuchelli is believable and is part of the reason people may keep coming back to watch; he believes fervently in each of the students and wants everyone else to see their potential too. Perez’s character, Tracy Wolfe is the glue that holds everything together as assistant director of the program and is yet another example of a character with inspiring dedication. She is one of the teachers who gives her all to the job, even sacrificing certain parts of her own family life. Having a job that pays barely enough, handling a son who is an alcoholic at 16 and taking in a homeless student, her plate seems to be full but she persists and continues to inspire those around her to do and be better.
Each character in this story can connect to a wide audience from theatre lovers and parents of teenagers to young adults themselves. Although it’s just getting started with the first few episodes, if the message of this show persists, then it very well may be renewed for another season of the high school world of musical theatre and the journey which unfolds.