Star power in Long Beach Poly’s ‘Chicago’ opens Long Beach high school drama season

Long Beach Poly is a high school known for star power.

The city’s first high school has produced more NFL/MLB/NBA players than any other in the state, and it has a large cast of well-known successful musicians as well. But while the school boasts successful actors on its alumni lists (Cameron Diaz and Carl Weathers among them), it hasn’t been known for producing big names as of late.

That may be changing under seventh-year drama teacher Linda Bon, whose burgeoning program put on a star-powered performance of “Chicago” last weekend. All four shows drew large crowds to the recently renovated Osman Performing Arts Center, and the full musical production included pit musicians, multi-story sets and more than 100 on-stage student actors, dancers and musicians. Poly is a big campus with a lot of talent, and Bon has been able to tie a lot of those threads together over the last couple of years.

A theater actor herself, Bon chose teaching as a second career and arrived at Poly seven years ago with no idea what was in store for her. She quickly began building the theater program up from the small Poly Playhouse on campus to a point where, the year before the pandemic, Poly put on “Hairspray” as a full musical, something the school hadn’t done in years. COVID-19 presented its own challenges, but last year the program put on “Shrek: The Musical” in a return to the auditorium and a full-sized production.

This year’s production, “Chicago,” was the biggest effort yet, with the school’s dance team, music program, stage crew and even newspaper staff all taking part, with an eight-page “ripped from the headlines” newspaper serving as the show’s program. Being able to navigate a high school campus and convince people to volunteer is a skill, but it’s a skill that Bon has.

“I hate to say that ‘I’ have scaled it up. I think the truth is ‘we’ve’ scaled it up, because we’ve grown better at working together as a team with a lot of different departments here,” she said. “And the students just floor me. They surprise me. And it was a particularly strong bunch this year. If I have any skill, it’s finding shows that are right for the crop of students that we have, and I had a goldmine this year.”

Indeed, for as impressive as the group effort was, theater performances are often defined by the names at the top of the billing, and Poly’s “Chicago” had an embarrassment of star power for a high school production. Kaysee French and Xo Hayes starred as Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly in the Saturday night production, and both were well beyond the talent level expected even of strong high school performers.

Luke Porter (Billy Flynn) and Tom Wood (Amos Hart) were incredibly strong as well, as was Elani Moss (Mama Morton), along with Sydney Bautista and Bella Dopulos, the student actresses who played Hart and Kelly on Thursday and on Saturday’s matinee showing.

Hayes is an experienced dancer who learned to sing for the part of Kelly—her voice was strong enough, and she sang with enough confidence, to make listeners think she’d been singing for years.

French transferred into Poly last year as a junior from out of state and has stolen the stage both times she’s appeared. An experienced theater and youth screen actress, she was a true triple-threat as Roxie: acting, singing and dancing at a pro level.

French said she had a blast putting on a show the size of “Chicago” and being a part of making a name for the Poly drama program. She said she chose

the school after seeing YouTube clips of Poly’s “Hairspray” performance and realizing the level of talent on campus.

“Musicals in general tend to be unnoticed,” she said. “Athletics and music are huge at Poly—but this was such an honor. This group of people is really, really talented, and it was fun to be around other people who cared as much as I do. It makes you feel comfortable when you’re around people who care as much as you. You can feel it.”

Bon said that it was apparent early on working with French that she had next-level aspirations and talent.

“I was absolutely convinced by her,” said Bon. “She wants to be an actress, and I have no doubt that she will be, professionally—it’s in her blood. She’s got an innate sense of timing and a sense of humor. She just owns the audience.”

Bon said that while it was hard to put a special performance like “Chicago” aside after last weekend’s performances, she also appreciated getting a break and being able to catch up on sleep.

“That’s theater. It’s ephemeral. It shines, and then it vanishes,” she said. “That’s the nature of it. My goal is—we’ve got a huge auditorium with 1,100 seats, and I hope that as we build our reputation in our community, we get it to where it’s completely filled up for these kids.”

“Chicago” was just the start of drama season for Long Beach’s high schools. Millikan’s acclaimed theater department—which has been doing musicals for years—will be putting on “The Addams Family – A New Musical Comedy” tonight and this weekend. Cabrillo will stage “Animal Farm” on April 27 and 28, among other spring performances on the schedule.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the names of the students who performed as Velma Kelly.

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