The Ponte Vedra High School drama department was running through a rendition of “Fugue for Tinhorns” from the musical “Guys and Dolls” when instructor Jason Nettle jumped onstage mid-scene, joining one student in a prop newsstand to give him advice.
Nettle's attention to detail isn’t missed on the students as he encourages handfuls of the cast of 90 to interact in the background, walk by in pairs and talk “without really talking.” His encouragement is contagious; tension leaves the teens’ bodies and the scene resumes without a hitch as he takes his place back in the front row.
It’s crunch time for the young cast, with opening night set for April 20. They’ve been rehearsing together for a little under a month – less than the time typically allowed for most high school productions, and clocking in early mornings and late nights to pull the show together. In spite of the pressure, the students are eager, and Nettle welcomes the opportunity to give them a dose of professional stage shows and encourage the involvement of more young people in theater.
“Most plays are rehearsed for six to eight weeks, but I want to teach them not only how to be in a show but how to do it in a professional way,” Nettle said. “And I’m really excited to have a lot of guys involved this time around to eliminate the stigma of boys in theater – to just let them have fun and let them be.”
It is only Nettle's third production with the department of some 200 students, but he’s far from new to the theater game. The instructor brings with him theater experience from New York, where he acted professionally for 12 years, and Jacksonville’s own Alhambra Theatre & Dining. His students say Nettle's arrival has shaken up the school’s drama department in ways they never anticipated as they prepare to present the 1950s musical. With the production of “Guys and Dolls,” Nettle said he hopes to introduce the young thespians to pieces that contrast with the contemporary trappings with which they’re familiar, while giving as many students as possible a chance to perform.
“It’s my first year, so I’m really trying to get everyone involved,” he said. “There’s about 90 kids in the show and I’m trying to use them in different ways by introducing them to a musical of the Golden Age, which is something they probably haven’t been frequently exposed to.”
“Guys and Dolls” is a musical Nettle calls “an audience favorite,” adapted from the film version starring Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando as gamblers Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson. In the musical, Detroit is quickly running out of options for a venue for his infamous craps games. In need of a $1,000 deposit for access to a garage to host the game, Detroit faces mounting pressure from an increasingly strong-armed police force, the expectations of his friends and the need to win a desperate bet he places with Masterson for the money: that the high-rolling Masterson cannot woo the virtuous missionary Sarah Brown.
With the high school’s production, Nettle is taking the work and suggestions of his young cast to heart. Audiences can look forward to choreographed pieces by student Kylie Giliberto, set design by Dylan Mathis and characters brought to life by Michael D’Aquila, Olivia Wolford, Madelyn Wells and Nick Dondero.
“Embodying these bigger than life characters, finding some sense of realism has no doubt been a challenge,” said Dondero, who portrays Masterson. “But I also hope the same for this performance that I do for every performance – working with (middle school students) has kind of shown us what the next generation of drama students could look like, so I hope that another young person will be inspired.”
The process has doubled as a learning and bonding experience for a group still getting to know their new instructor, with students citing Nettle's tailored advice and fun approach to drama as sources of motivation.
“He genuinely cares about our growth and we’re all so grateful to have him because this is definitely not the typical experience of a high school department,” Wells said. “Watching it come together while everyone learns and grows and supports one another has definitely been the most rewarding part.”
In the future, Nettle welcomes the opportunity to expose his students to more works from the Golden Age of musical theater, which he said set the foundation of his own aspirations as a young actor. But for the time being, he’s happy familiarizing himself with his pupils and the stage that houses them.
“Since I’m fairly new I’m still learning the stage,” he said. “But with a cast this young, what I push for above all is creativity –– so I’m just having a ton of fun with this really great group of kids.”
Ponte Vedra High School’s production of “Guys and Dolls” will be performed April 20-22 at 7 p.m., with an additional performance at 2 p.m. on April 22. Tickets can be purchased from the school’s front office through April 21 and at the auditorium box office for $15 for adults and $10 for students at the door.