When's the last time you saw more than 100 kids step onto a stage to flawlessly execute a fast-paced performance full of breathtaking singing, all genres of dancing, slapstick comedy and spot-on acting? Probably the last time you saw a performance by the Mosaic Youth Theatre.
A show that brings a young, modern twist to holiday traditions is becoming its own tradition for Detroiters. The students in "Woodward Wonderland," Mosaic's fifth annual holiday show playing this Friday and Saturday at the Detroit Film Theatre, aren't professionals. But despite school, homework and other activities, they manage to squeeze in approximately 10 hours per week to practice; holiday show rehearsals began two months ago.
Khadijah Howell, a senior at Wylie E. Groves High School who is part of Mosaic's acting company, said it can be difficult to make time for the rehearsals, as well as performances in the community, but she makes it work.
"I just try to get my homework in on the days I don't have rehearsal, so on Monday and Wednesday I'm just studying away," she said.
Howell joined the all-youth performance troupe, which has received international recognition, two years ago after seeing the show "Now That I Can Dance -- Motown 1962."
"I loved it. I said, I have to be in that. It took me a while to work up the courage to audition, but I'm glad I did," she said.
Howell, along with most members of the cast, juggles several parts in the "Woodward Wonderland" show. Her favorite is her role in the ensemble scene put together by the students in Mosaic's Next Stage company. In "Twas the Night," performers rap and dance their way through a new spin on the traditional Christmas poem.
Long-standing Detroit traditions like ice skating at Campus Martius Park and going to Noel Night are included, but all with a modern twist to bring relevance to the younger audience members. A young actor playing pop star Nicki Minaj garnered the biggest laughs from the rapt student matinee on Thursday after she was carried into the sky by a runaway Elmo balloon at a mock Thanksgiving Day parade.The disparate scenes in "Woodward Wonderland" are narrated by several performers, but held together by the common thread of sharing holiday traditions -- all through the eyes of kids.
In the scene "Dinner Guest," a family frantically prepares for a holiday meal, and the squabbling -- from arguments over who will carry in the groceries to why the door isn't locked -- doesn't disguise the family's underlying sadness that the father, who is serving in the military, won't be coming home for Christmas.
"All the chaos was kind of like my family," Howell said.
"Dinner Guest" resonated particularly with performers and the student audience, who had the chance to tell their own stories about family traditions and loved ones who wouldn't be coming home for the holidays in the discussion following the show.
Other scenes are guaranteed to make an older generation reminisce, from stories about Christmas shopping at Hudson's to a Motown medley, capped off with the amazing singing of a suave group of Temptations impersonators.
Throughout the flurry of costume and scene changes, the youthful performers, all between the ages of 11 and 18, filled the stage with spirit, energy and laughter.
Courtney Burkett, director of Mosaic's acting programs, said "Woodward Wonderland" brings together different pieces, some that Mosaic troupes have been performing for years and some new for 2011.
"The stories and the narratives often come from real people," she said. "[One scene] is a young person's story that they talked about, and then we had a playwright who crafted the story and turned it into a theater piece."
Many of the students in the company decide to audition after seeing a Mosaic show.
"The community support is a very big deal," Burkett said.
A wide range of people come to Mosaic's shows, from family and friends of performers to what Burkett called "Mosaic groupies." The company's alumni in the community also come, often with their children.
"Certainly there's a lot of people in the audience who are associated with the show," Burkett said. "But it's also something that people are just interested in supporting."
"It's become a tradition, a part of the fabric of the Detroit cultural life," she added.
"Woodward Wonderland" will be at the Detroit Film Theatre at the DIA from Dec. 9 - 11. For tickets and more information, see Mosaic's website.