Sunday, February 16, 2020

DC ExtraTime: From The Beach to an "Encore!"

*** WARNING: Contains Spoilers for Some Readers, Please Read with Caution ***

BY DC CUEVA                        
    Estimated Reading Time: 18 MINS.

As we near the end of winter at the Ex On The Beach: Peak of Love Chalet, if you saw our uncensored look back at its first season last month we relived some of the biggest moments of that season in its raw form. We also laid down plenty of info involving practically everyone famous who has been on the U.S. version of this global dating phenomenon: Taylor Selfridge & Cory Wharton having a baby, Angela Babicz & Nelson Thomas apparing on Dr. Phil, cameos in videos with Cardi B. and Camila Cabello, the numerous reality stars who've been on here, and much more.

That first season of Ex U.S. saw plenty of intriguing romances as in the two MTV alumni who came into the house single and exited boyfriend & girlfriend, Angela's love triangle with Tor'i Brooks and Derrick Henry, the first appearance of future Challenge villain Paulie Califiore and others. Not well known much as there was the dilemma on the mind of L.A. DJ Chris Pearson (one of the three singles who didn't have any prior reality TV experience) in having a few of his exes in paradise, including Skyler Mikkelson who just announced a pregnancy last week (adding to Faith, Camila & Amanda), and an emerging singer he worked with a few years back named Chelsko Thompson.

While you were busy last month, Chelsko (who was Chris' first ex along with another, Haley Reed) added to the array of appearances of Ex On The Beach U.S. alumni outside the three mansions which have hosted the show's four seasons. But her TV return comes in a totally different world in many ways: instead of being on another romantic reality dating show, the backdrop is something she hasn't done since she was a teenager going to high school when TRL was still airing on MTV and a year before two of its biggest hits began airing.

And to sweeten the deal, the show Chelsko appeared on is not airing on a traditional linear TV channel, but streaming through the internet on the most buzzed-about video on demand platform of the past few years; where its target audience is a broader section of the population than what MTV can cater to, and whose content is as squeaky clean as the shiny windows adorning the many attractions of two of the biggest theme parks in America. And it involves something timeless: the magic and the energy that is performing live theatre.

The date of November 12, 2019 was a day circled on the calendars of everyone who works for The Walt Disney Company and those who worship the world of Mickey Mouse & his lovable friends clique. That day, the over-the-top pay streaming television service, Disney+, launched to tremendous buzz around the world as it now takes on Netflix, Hulu and other companies in a now crowded field of streaming services catering to the increasing number of those "cord cutters" who prefer to get their shows over the web than through the traditional methods of cable, satellite and antennas.
   Disney+ launched right out of the gate with a slew of new movies and TV shows joining the gamut of cartoons, classic films & shows from its archive of family entertainment, as millions of Americans took the Tuesday after Veteran's Day off to binge watch. Those who are avid fans of Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe also had reason to join the fandom for this occasion during a year where movies from both franchises and the broader Disney studio dominated the box office and held seven of the year's top 10 grossing films, with Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Rise of Skywalker, Frozen 2 and Toy Story 4 making up the Top 5 and making $3.6 billion in theater receipts.
   The Disney+ library boasts most of the film & TV content produced and released by Disney & Pixar, plus most Marvel, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox movies, and National Geographic content. Original projects for the service include Star Wars: The Mandalorian, Diary of a Future President, and unscripted content which, as the company states, will "find the ethos of Disney in everyday stories, inspiring hope and sparking the curiosity of audiences of all ages," staying true to the long-standing family-friendly image that the late Walt Disney preached since he forged the foundation of what is now the single biggest power in the entire American & global media landscape.

A series much anticipated with the launch of Disney+ is a series inspired by Disney Channel's smash hit High School Musical, where a group of new students seek to add their own touch to that 2000's franchise in creating a musical based on the exploits made famous by Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Tisdale over a decade ago. It has a spiritual link to the program that is the focus of this post: an unscripted series that first premiered as an ABC holiday special in December 2017.
   Encore! is introduced by the voice of Frozen's Anna, Kristen Bell, who also doubles as the show's executive producer... but before her breakthrough roles on The CW's Veronica Mars, Gossip Girl and NBC's The Good Place, she was on Broadway. Her acting career began on the stage starring in high school productions, and then in adaptations of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Crucible, before film and TV roles including joining original Are You The One? host Ryan Devlin on the teen crime drama.
   The concept of Encore! allows Kristen to help reunite castmates of high school musicals from back in the day to give them an opportunity to recreate their original performances some 10-20 years after the fact, all with the help of a crew with Broadway experience and ensemble performers. Like many other documentary-based shows in the genre, it follows the former theatre stars as they get to rediscover their past for this reunion, both on-stage and off including reliving the unique bonds they had during their youth and acknowledging the missteps of childhood & adolescence as emotions will undoubtedly run high.
   The idea of former theatre kids reuniting to recreate musicals from their childhood was that of Kristen's friend, musical producer & writer Will Gluck. She told the bible of all things Broadway, Playbill Magazine, "High school musical theatre is some of the fondest memories I have and the idea of reliving them -- not just to go back to what felt like glory days but also, because high school is an incredibly turbulent time for a lot of us, there are things I'd like to say to people I went to high school with. There are amends I'd like to make. And I think that this show really allows our cast to do that."
Cast of Encore's Beauty & The Beast
episode (Bill Matlock/Disney+)
   The original pilot saw performers of a 1997 adaptation of Into The Woods at a high school north of L.A. get together again to perform a play that brought together characters of many classic fairy tales into one play, which was later turned into an acclaimed 2014 Disney film with Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Chris Pine and Johnny Depp. And the series itself has seen recreations of classics such as Annie, Beauty & The Beast, The Sound of Music, Grease, Oklahoma and, of course, High School Musical.
   The show has crisscrossed the nation from near Disneyland to outside the Big Apple... and has seen people who haven't performed with one another for as much as over 40 years take the stage one more time to perfect that note, get that outfit right, and relive the good ole days performing live theatre. It has become a hot commodity thanks to the mega-hit Hamilton being given a 2021 Disney film release, the popularity of live TV musicals, the 2017 hit movie The Greatest Showman, and even the holiday box office bomb Cats being parodied at the Oscars by Corden and Rebel Wilson.

Encore! debuted along with the rest of the Disney+ service back on November 12, and unlike Netflix and Hulu but similar to what went down with The Circle last month, the service releases its original TV series content on a weekly basis instead of all at once. But they did save the big drama for its season 1 finale late last month, where classmates from Pacifica Christian High School in Santa Monica were brought back to their old stomping grounds to perform a play that, like the movie that was a Broadway winner, also bombed out.
   The play Ragtime debuted in the mid 1990s on Broadway, London and other cities, based on the 1975 historical fiction novel of the same name penned by E.K. Doctorow. It tells the story of three groups of Americans who grew up in New York City at the turn of the 20th century: blacks, upper-class suburbanites and Eastern European immigrants. The original Broadway production, which included future Glee star Lea Michele, won four Tony Awards, despite mixed reviews and the firm producing it going bankrupt after the lavish production didn't score much at the box office.
   The year of 2008 saw South Pacific win the most Tony Awards and where Lin-Manuel Miranda's first Broadway work, In The Heights, won Best Musical (and for which a film adaptation of it drops this summer, and which inspired a 2013 MTV series based in that uptown NYC suburb). That same year, the local production of Ragtime by those Pacifica Christian High School students was first performed by them in front of their classmates as that private, college-preparatory liberal arts campus when they were juniors a year before they ruled school and walked across that graduation stage.

On her Instagram when the Encore series was announced (@ChelskoMusic), Chelsko wrote the following beneath pictures relating to her playing more of a central role than the first time we saw on TV almost two years ago:
"Back in July I had one of the MOST challenging, horrifying, wonderful, exhilarating, heart warming, life changing experiences of my life. In one week I both faced my BIGGEST fear (public failure & stage fright) and was reminded of what REAL friends and family look at feel like. The entire cast from 2009 got to spend a week recreating a musical we performed 10 years ago. I got to face my biggest fear as a girlie woman, playing a man. I always feared messing up or failing more than anything in the world, but now that I have, now that I have failed in my eyes in the most EMBARRASSING way humanly possibly and lived through it I realize I really have nothing left to fear. And THAT, that was only one millionth of what I experienced that week. Come watch and see 10 year Pacifica High School reunion performance of RAGTIME a painfully relative musical hitting on many of today's heart wrenching issues. This experience changed my life in so many ways. I am so beyond grateful for the entire experience."

After leaving the EOTB mansion as one of the exes who were cut in its Cut or Crush eliminations, Chelsko is an aspiring singer & songwriter... but in Ragtime she played the role of one of the greats in the world of magic, Harry Houdini. She grew up in a conservative Christian family, but Chelsea understood her need to be different than those in her house, and as she returned she stated, "I'd like to come back with a bang" ... her returning wearing Barbie shoes when she reunited with her former cast sums it all up.
Cast before their performance.
(Mitch Hasseth/Disney+)
   When she arrived back at Pasadena Christian, Chelsko met those who were a decade older and where life has brought them to different points in the compass. Anthony is an ambulance paramedic from up in Bakersfield, but back then he played 20th-century family patriarch Father. Being part of a family rich in theatre tradition, he also had sibling company as his sister Miranda also performed alongside him as Evelyn Nesbit. Jackie is a Spanish teacher who performed principal female character Mother who was at the heart of a white upper-class family in a New York suburb.
   Asiah is a human relations executive who played political activist Emma Goldman, while her high school sweetheart Jonathan is a music industry coordinator who led the African Americans as Coalhouse Walker, and who comes from a musical family as his mom performed with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. Tyler works off-stage as a theater tech director but who was on stage playing a Jewish immigrant who went on to a prosperous life in America, while Davia is a senior financial manager who played Coalhouse's love interest Sarah.
   When she was in the EOTB house, Chelsko was boisterous in being DJ Chris' first ex and who formed a bond with the other exes during her time in paradise. Jackie described her as, "...your very typical Malibu girl with the blonde hair and the big smile, and she was always very happy and bubbly, and just a really good friend. Something tells me she's the same person." And her boyfriend added of Chelsko, "I love watching her perform. It's when she's out there doing her thing that she loves it. You can see it... she has a lot of passion."

The reunited cast joined with two of those who worked on the Tony-nominated 2009 revival of Ragtime on Broadway, theatre veterans Marcia Milgrom Dodge, choreographer Josh Walden and music director Darryl Archibald. They first performed for them when they covered recent Broadway vet Sara Bareilles' 2008 hit "Love Song," danced in the school gym like they're newcomers from the street being asked to dance for Ariana Grande, and relearned lines from the play with their former drama teacher Michael Balsley.
(Mitch Hasseth/Disney+)
   Chelsea, Anthony, Miranda, Jackie, Asiah, Jonathan, Tyler and Davia were given the tall task of performing the same exact roles that they did when they teenagers, but were assisted by other vets of the live theatre experience who performed Ragtime up in Pasadena beforehand. Them being together again afforded plenty of bonding time at school, around town and even with Jon's parents, along with learning the rigors of performing on stage, which takes hours on end for a play to be learned and perfected before the curtains go up. They can be relieved that it's just one night only, rather than several nights a week like any Broadway production.
   When she found out that she'd be reunited with her former mates, Chelsko was the one who felt pressured to live up to the musical side of things. But during a conversation with Jackie and Asiah as they learning their lines, Chelsko brought up something that they didn't know about her and who had felt skeptical about how she was acting like a bothered soul. While attending high school, Chelsko had been suffering from an eating disorder in only eating every few days at a time until she made a commitment to a healthy lifestyle, and who teared up in Jackie's arms after that revelation.
   Being someone who loves to have some flashy fashion as part of her identity, Chelsko also had to learn to temporarily get used to wearing new clothing suitable for the broad-based theatre audience who, except for the millennials, have probably no idea that she was on an MTV show. She wore a leopard outfit to their first stage rehearsal, but was told to dress down, wear simple clothing and not do her own makeup. And all this as Chelsko's Houdini character would be arriving on stage hanging from the ceiling upside down in a straitjacket and trying to do what the magician did many times of escaping from it in his heyday. Imagine being given a audition for The Challenge on Broadway(!).

The former classmates had just two & a half days of rehearsals to get those vocal cords in the tune with the music, overcome whatever stage fright they have, and get themselves reacquainted with the love of performing. Chelsko followed in the director's orders and got dressed almost like Challenger Nicole as a tomboy in being a modern day Houdini, but her forgetting her lines and Tyler forgetting his cue, as well as the group being one-person short due to Davia's day job, epitomized the anxiety of being so nervous this close to showtime.
Chelsko in Houdini outfit.
(Mitch Hasseth/Disney+)
   But it's only when the bright lights are shining, when the audience is in place, and cameras in sight ready to capture this for everyone's entertainment and memory, do the chills for any performer truly get to them. With only one take to get it all right on just this one night, the pressure was on Anthony, Asiah, Chelsko, Davia, Jackie, Jonathan, Miranda and Tyler to nail the performance of a lifetime. Once the music began playing and them being dressed in their costumes, and with family and friends watching with everyone else, a group only being brought together on one week's notice performed as well & passionately as they could like those who have done it for much longer than them.
   That is, except for that one moment when Houdini entered the stage for the first time upside down, and Chelsko forgot a couple lines and instead laughed as the lights dimmed, all while the show's directors were on the edge of their emotional state. It's as if what befell Ashlee Simpson on Saturday Night Live years ago had gotten to poor Chelsko and it's as if she was back in the Ex house in Hawaii on the emotional scale. But Tyler was quick to console to console her when he whispered to her off-stage, "Who cares? It's one line. And you laughed and smiled and it was funny. And we're over it. No one remembers. Only you remember. It's fine."

By the time they finished Ragtime's closing number and received a standing ovation from the audience, the cast could finally breathe a sigh of relief, and also receive some satisaction from what was, indeed, a night that was eleven years in the making, but whose effects will last beyond that one night. Jonathan says, "If you're lucky to have a moment like this, you gotta seize it and you gotta take it because it doesn't happen often or ever for everyone. To be brought back together in such an environment of love, there's no way that our friendships can't stay connected from this."
Cast doing their final number.
(Mitch Hasseth/Disney+)
   For someone who only had run-through rehearsal time on her hands, Davia adds, "I can't believe we managed to pull it off in the 24 hours of rehearsal that I was able to get, probably less, but I think we hit it, and it felt great." Tyler says, "This week has definitely helped remind me what I loved about performing. And it has reignited something in me that I had forgotten was there, and it was maybe smoldering a little bit, and now it's burning bright again." And it's similar words for Asiah: "The show went so much better than I could have imagined. I have so much love for the alumni, and the people that came to support us."
   Anthony gave up a week of saving lives for the chance to reconnect himself with the past, and while he looked forward to resuming his day job he feels joyed at this experience, "I'm feeling just like over the moon right now." While for sibling Miranda, she adds that a part of her character will always be part of her: "Her confidence... she's just now so special to me," and she can also be relieved that she can permanently retire those heels.
   And for the person who had the only major mix-up of the night, Chelsko had this to say when she embraced her boyfriend that awaited her in the foyer post-performance like the friends and family of the rest of the cast: "I'm proud of myself for not giving up after that moment. It was literally like I just gotten in a car accident, or lost my dog. Like, the worst feeling. But that is life. That we mess up, but you don't stop. The show must go on. You keep going. You keep pushing."

For one night only, Chelsko, Anthony, Asiah, Davia, Jackie, Jonathan, Miranda and Tyler were on the same stage together once again, performing a play that taps into the divided social landscape of 2020. Whites, blacks and immigrants have been part of the national dialogue in the four years since the last election, and the story of Ragtime taps into what people now are going through in these times, just as it was back then when people from around the world came to America in search of the dream.
   But the focus is on the stage, and the stars of the night were the cast themselves... culled from their present day jobs in business, medical and entertainment for the chance to relive the joy of live theatre, and all of them came away from it with an unforgettable experience, even if some moments were perhaps forgettable. They deserved an encore, and they got one.

🎭  🎭  🎭

One more thing to place in this postscript: Chelsko is not the only link between Encore! and MTV Reality: behind the cameras, segment director Hisham Abed worked on the first two seasons of Laguna Beach and the first two seasons of The Hills, followed over a decade later by working behind the scenes on the first two seasons of its East Coast-based cousins and the college-aged series it was inspired by, Siesta Key.
   In all three instances, he's followed the franchise's protagonists of Lauren Conrad, Kristin Cavalleri and Juliette Porter along with all their assorted co-stars, and in Florida worked alongside executive producer Ismael Soto, who is now the 21-year-older boyfriend of SK castmate Madisson Hausberg. And Hisham has also worked on the Netflix revival of Queer Eye, with Real World and Challenge alum Karamo Brown.

Stories like the one you've just seen is presented from the vantage point of ExtraTime - DCBLOG's way of highlighting the shows you love and its stars with original storytelling offering a detailed look at the most-talked about moments of TV's most fascinating reality ecosystem and stories from this world you can't get anywhere else. It's only part of our view Inside MTV Reality, with weekly episode coverage, social reaction and beyond... if you like you've read, bookmark us and like, comment & share our posts on the social media platforms of your choice, and include the hashtags #DCBLOG and #SeeForYourself in your posts to @DC408Dxtr... and thank you for reading.


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