For Bobb Cooper, Valley Youth Theatre’s producing artistic director, the subject of foster care and adoption is more than complicated. It’s personal.
“It’s no secret that my own childhood wasn’t what anyone would consider traditional,” says Cooper, as VYT prepares to bring the adoption-themed musical “They Chose Me!” to stage Oct. 11-27 in downtown Phoenix. “I was taken away from my mother at 3, raised by my father and stepmother until 11, and then sent to foster care until I was placed back with my biological mother — who I hardly knew.”
The show — helping raise awareness about foster care and adoption in time for National Adoption Day on Nov. 23 — tells it like it is onstage, through the eyes of kids ages 7 to 18. They share their stories, both funny and poignant, about foster homes, multicultural families, gay adoption and losing a parent.
VYT first introduced “They Chose Me!” to Arizona audiences in 2013, but it was important to Cooper to bring it back. “We want to bring attention to challenges young people face every day, whether that’s what they look like, where they’re from or what makes up their family,” he explains.
The show was written by Ned Paul Ginsburg and Michael Colby, with music by Ginsburg and lyrics by Colby. After Ginsburg, who had been a musical theater author much of his life, became an adoptive father, he says, “It seemed to me that there could or should be a musical about adoption.”
He introduced the idea to Colby, who agreed. They met with Janine Nina Trevens, the longtime head of a children’s theater company in Manhattan called TADA! “and she thought it was a good idea.” The whole idea came to fruition with a premiere in New York City.
Though Ginsburg initially met Cooper at a meeting in New York that had nothing to do with “They Chose Me!”, he says the subject of an adoption musical must have caught his attention, resulting in Cooper ultimately both directing and producing the play in Phoenix.
Ginsburg and Colby will both be present on opening night this season. Ginsburg is bringing his adopted son, Alex, who turns 20 this year. Ginsburg has brought Alex to Phoenix when he’s had other meetings with Cooper and says, “He’s become quite close with a number of Phoenix kids his own age, which is wonderful.”
Ginsburg believes the play has the potential to appeal to different people on different levels.
“As with any show, you want an audience to be entertained and moved,” says Ginsburg. “But in addition, I would hope that those … less informed about the topic might come away with a deeper understanding of adoption in all its facets. And those who already know a lot might enjoy how we’ve dramatized some of the aspects of adoption.”
Cooper notes “how inspired we all are by this incredible cast of young people, three of whom are adopted themselves.”
That includes Shaylee Flanagan, a ninth-grader at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert, who plays Eve Eden. “I like that Eve is a black girl adopted into a multiracial family, like me,” says Shaylee, who wants audiences to realize “that adoption is a positive experience and not strange or weird” and adds, “I hope people will be open to adoption and foster care, because there is a huge need for foster families in our community.” (There are currently about 15,000 children in Arizona’s foster care system — one of the highest per capita rates in the country.)
Erin Deines Schumacher plays Sarah Cook, who hosts a gathering of adopted kids. Erin is a ninth-grader at ASU Prep Digital, an online school. “I love that I can help the world see what power and love adoption can have,” she says, adding, “One of my best friends is adopted, and she has changed my life.”
Cooper also hopes the show will encourage communication and create understanding “for everyone who sees families that don’t seem like their own.”
He also hopes it will ultimately inspire adults to consider being either a foster or an adoptive parent. “They Chose Me!” addresses single-parent, same-sex and multiracial homes, in addition to “a myriad of other scenarios” that Cooper thinks might make someone in the audience realize, “There’s really no reason I can’t give a child a home.”
Despite the seriousness of the subject, Ginsburg wants to make sure no one thinks this is a pedantic production.
“The score is kind of a modern pop, rock and musical theater score with a lot of different styles,” he says. “There’s dancing, and the topic is treated in a very entertaining way.”
VYT’s Cooper can relate completely to the stories that unravel onstage. He was living on his own at age 15. “That’s when I learned that it was my own strength, perseverance and survival skills that would see me through. That’s why I’ve dedicated my life to teaching children to follow their dreams, to trust in their own abilities and to never give up hope.”
In his 38 years of working with young people, Cooper says he’s seen almost every facet of family life you can imagine. He adds that he’s worked with children who have overcome numerous challenges, and, tragically, some who haven’t.
“It may sound cliché, but I really do believe the children are our future and — to recite the words of Whitney Houston — that it’s up to us to show them the beauty they possess and give them a sense of pride. That’s what we strive to do every day, at VYT.”
“They Chose Me!” is deemed appropriate for all ages.
“They Chose Me!” cast members are:
- Katerina Anderson, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Fireside Elementary School in Phoenix, plays Nancy Tatum, a shy, insecure child who is afraid of abandonment.
- Owen Brady, a ninth-grader at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, plays Jimmy Magee, a tough kid who has had a rough life, and has a sensitive side, too.
- Kylan Chait, a seventh-grader at Arizona Virtual Academy, plays Marcus Lopez.
- Owen Donsker, a freshman at Paradise Valley High School, plays Brett Walker, and hopes to make the audience feel some of the emotions these characters explore. “Nothing is more beautiful to me than making an audience cry.”
- Paolina Duran, a ninth-grader at Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics in Phoenix, plays Laura Jamison, who is self-conscious about her Latino origins and resentful of her birth parents for deserting her.
- Olivia Fearey, a seventh-grader in the REACH program for gifted kids at Madison No. 1 Middle School in Phoenix, portrays Sharla Franco, a girl with a range of moods from sunny to gloomy that she expresses through song.
- Shaylee Flanagan, a ninth-grader at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert, portrays Eve Eden. “I like that Eve is a black girl adopted into a multiracial family, like me,” she says.
- Gabriella Grasso, a homeschooled eighth-grader, plays Kay Prager, and notes she has family friends who are foster parents: “They put their hearts on the line knowing when the child leaves there will be an amazing pain from the void, but they still do it out of love.”
- Emily Jacoby, a senior at Perry High School in Gilbert, portrays Amy Jasper.
- Leonidas Karandreas, a sophomore at Mountain Ride High School in Glendale, plays Carl O’Reilly Grossbaum.
- Lainey Kenly, a freshman at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, plays Sue Barton.
- Savannah LeNguyen, a sixth-grader at Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix, plays Mei-Ling Moskowitz, an Asian girl adopted into a Jewish family and is proud of both heritages.
- Kendall Luther, a sophomore at Notre Dame Preparatory in Scottsdale, plays Penny Abernathy, and hopes the audience takes away, “Every baby is wanted by someone, and love is infinite.”
- Brooklyn Martin, a fourth-grader at Glendale’s Copper Creek Elementary School, plays Gail Ryan, who is “funny and outspoken.”
- Nathaniel McNamara, an eighth-grader at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School in Phoenix, plays Ivan Zale, a boy from Romania who likes to imitate Dracula. He calls his character cuckoo and likes that he’s so energetic and tries to cheer everyone up. “Every kid has (his) story, and not everything in life is going to be perfect, (but) you always have someone to help you out and back you up, and eventually everything will be OK.”
- Sage Emerson Mitchell, an eighth-grader at Stetson Hills Elementary School in Phoenix, plays Patty Lewis and is glad to raise awareness about foster care and adoption: “My dad is adopted and my aunt has adopted several foster kids.”
- Patrick Mullen, a freshman at Horizon High School in Scottsdale, plays Jamal DuPré, who is irritable, rebellious and unhappy with his adoptive family.
- Erin Deines Schumacher plays Sarah Cook who hosts a gathering of adopted kids. Erin is a ninth-grader at ASU Prep Digital, an online school.
- Ava Silvernail, an eighth-grader at Veritas Preparatory Academy in Phoenix, plays Lily Kent, who “is not perfect.”
- Kayla Treviño, a 12-year-old seventh-grader in the REACH program Phoenix’s Madison No. 1 Middle School, plays Manuela Rodriguez. “I love how she is so confident about her Hispanic heritage just like me!”
- Sydney Vance, a ninth-grader at Arizona School for the Arts, plays Debra Martino, a somewhat awkward girl who has gone through many foster homes.
- Javen Wagner, a ninth-grader at Trivium Preparatory Academy in Goodyear, plays Sammy Stone and hopes the audience learns “they need to enjoy the life they have and to be grateful for it, because some have to go through much more difficult journeys to earn it.”
- Kate Williams, a fifth-grader at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School, plays Jane Smythe, who dreams of becoming a star.