The Pope John Players will represent Sussex County at the New Jersey State Teen Arts Festival on Tuesday, May 30 after winning five awards at 55th annual Bucks County Student Theater Festival.
The theater company at Pope John XXIII Regional High School in Sparta performed excerpts from its fall musical “Chess” and from a new musical “Unfathered” at the festival April 24 in New Hope, Pa.
Based on the Greek tragedy “Oedipus Rex,” “Unfathered” was composed by sophomore Ben Janiszewski with lyrics by sophomore Marco Concha. They won the Rising Stars Award for Composition and Lyrics at the festival.
Freshman Lilly Nugnes won the Spotlight Award for Featured Dancer; junior James Illardi won the Breakout Performance Award for Featured Vocalist; and sophomores Hannah Peterson and Bella Metternich won Spotlight Awards for Vocal Performances.
The Bucks County Student Theater Festival is a multiweek celebration that showcases talented students from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. Students perform on the historic stage, take workshops to develop their knowledge and receive feedback from theater professionals.
At the end of their performances, the judges complimented the Pope John Players for their portrayals, acting and singing.
They highlighted sophomore Ben Nascimento for his powerful solo performance of “Where I Want to Be” in “Chess.”
Janiszewski and Concha were inspired to write “Unfathered” after reading and studying “Oedipus Rex” at Pope John.
Janiszewski wrote the music in a “backwards process” before any lyrics, then spent three and a half months working with Concha “just to match those tones to the story,” he said. “In order to match unique characters to their pitch, we went through many iterations of each song.”
After research and study of Igor Stravinsky’s 1927 opera “Oedipus Rex,” Janiszewski decided to compose a Broadway musical version of the classic tragedy. Inspired by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” and 1980s musicals like “Chess,” he sought to put a modern twist on the story.
After working on several compositions for the musical, he invited Concha to write the lyrics for “Unfathered.”
“I didn’t have a lot of musical background but I guess I impressed Ben when working on Ms. Burt’s Honors US I Acts of Colonial song project,” Concha said. “I have enjoyed working with Ben and writing lyrics have become very important to me.”
The Pope John Players performed a 15-minute set of four songs from “Unfathered” at the Bucks County festival.
Jacquelyn Burt, director of the Pope John Players, said, “I have been asked over the years by numerous students and parents to put on original work and have turned folks down. It is a sign of the amazing talent of Ben and Marco that this work went forward as a piece at Bucks County. They deserved every ounce of praise they received and then some.
“I am very proud of them for pursuing this musical and maintaining their grades, schoolwork and sports,” she added. “It is an honor to meet Ben’s extremely supportive parents after everything they’ve done for him to get here.”
The musical received compliments from the judges for an overall great performance and the use of masks, recalling the comedies and tragedies of ancient Greece.
One judge commented, “Since when is ‘Chess,’ a show about the Cold War, the light show?”
Janiszewski, who conducted a 21-piece orchestra for “Chess,” will attend the Tanglewood 2023 summer program in Massachusetts.