For two nights in February, the Schaubühne Lindenfels theatre opened its ivory doors to the Leipzig public, who eagerly awaited the “splurge-studded” show called Bugsy Malone. The production was brought to life by almost 80 cast and crew members: the students and staff at Leipzig International School (LIS).
This is the school’s first attempt at a larger scale theatre production since being founded in 1992. The LIS middle-schoolers – in grades 6 to 8 – and their mentors left no stone unturned in making their interpretation of this renowned gangster comedy a slapstick success.
The story of Bugsy Malone follows the exploits of mischievous mobsters Bugsy Malone and Dandy Dan. It’s an American-British comedy written and directed by Sir Alan William Parker in 1976. Parker would go on to direct other classics such as Mississippi Burning and Angela’s Ashes, but watching Bugsy Malone is always a notable and unique experience – because the stars of this gangster story are children. A fitting role for the ever-energetic kids from LIS.
To gain some insight into this project, I had the pleasure of speaking with Cedric Thompson, who is a teacher at LIS, and stage director of this production.
“Rehearsals began in mid-November. The whole rehearsal schedule was designed around our choreographer, Anna Maria Bernard, who is a professional dancer and happens to run the Swing Dance Leipzig studio just a spitting distance from school.
“Since we had significant time constraints placed on us by the Schaubühne Lindenfels – it is a very busy performance space and we had virtually no choice with dates – I realized that I needed to work in a less conventional way.
“A week after auditions and casting, students began dance sessions; some took place at school, others in the dance studio. It was all a little crazy jogging between two locations. Dancing in the studio added a certain charm that one doesn’t quite find in a classroom, and that was fun.”
Thompson praised the students on their ability to pick up the dance steps quickly, which he reiterated in his brief “thank you” speech on the opening night of the performance.
I was gobsmacked by the speed at which youngsters learn.
During our chat, he also brought up the challenges one faces when tackling such a time-consuming project with teenagers who have a lot of extra-curricular activities – and still make it by deadline.
“From the get-go, there has been a buzz. Still, the buzz was dampened when students noticed the demand on their personal time and their schedules over and beyond their normal school commitments.
“‘I would like to participate, but I have volleyball on Thursdays, tennis on Wednesdays, and piano lessons on Tuesdays, so I can only come to rehearsals on Monday. Will that be ok?’
“‘But, my mother doesn’t want me to be taken out of math and science lessons, so she thinks I should pull out.’
“Such were the questions I had to contend with, and they weren’t isolated.”
Despite these constraints involving the students, Thompson and his team remained determined, and together they managed to make this project work.
The immense effort they put in could be felt even before the main performance began. An atmospheric swing dance spectacle led by Bernard, brimming with positive energy, had already broken out on stage to welcome the audience finding their seats. Fat Sam’s band was 14 members strong, and – conducted by the gifted musical director and pianist Paul Foulkes – played an absolute blinder. They delivered each jazzy number with so much oomph, it was impossible not to tap your foot and sing along.
Every single cast member looked the part.
There was no shortage of tweed, pinstripe suits, ties, and braces, bowlers, feathers, flapper dresses, high heels, pearls, quiffs, sequins, and spangles. Stunningly vibrant costumes captured the glam and glitz of the Roaring Twenties, so much that it made me feel like I was sitting in the Grand Slam Speakeasy amongst the Bugsy eccentrics. All that was missing was my “special on the rocks,” but a house white from the very accommodating Schaubühne bar did suffice, mind you!
Certain moments of comedy had me, as a dear Geordie friend of mine would say, “creased with laughter.” Dandy Dan’s hoodlums ruthlessly exterminated Fat Sam’s gang with the newest weapon on the scene: the infamous Splurge Gun, a toy gun that squirts foam. The enemy opted for an old faithful pie-in-the-face and, after each brutal extermination, a wandering violinist would circle the crime scene, with foam-clad bodies at her feet, playing her sorry tune. It’s a melodic refrain that occurs every time Dandy Dan’s crew wreak havoc in New York.
This had the audience chuckling every time, and the characters delivered their tongue-in-cheek lines with the mightiest of gall, never losing their cool amidst the foamy rigmarole.
Whimsical sub-plots ensured that the entertainment factor was constant from beginning to end. These included Bugsy’s strenuous quest to win Blousey’s affection, and Talullah’s flirtatious advances towards Bugsy, Fat Sam demanding Knuckles to stop cracking his knuckles, and the fruitless findings of Captain Smolsky and his hopeless “Irish potato head” sidekick O’Dreary.
As with any theatre performance, there are bound to be a few hiccups, especially during the opening performance, but the LIS students dealt with such matters like true professionals. Minor glitches in delivering lines, slight stumbles on the foamy surface, unavoidable bouts of the giggles amongst pals, and uncooperative props only added to the endearment factor, causing the cast and the audience to find more reason to smile. The fun was infectious.
Long before Bugsy Malone took the stage in Lindenau, it had heads turning, according to Thompson:
“I still recall the wintry Saturday morning in early January as the three main characters set out with IB student, Ada Halpole, [who had been] commissioned to design the poster. She had sussed out some locations in the city that have a 1920s vibe, and set up her photoshoot. Already, the eyes of the public had been stirred, and curious onlookers wanted to know why three teens were decked out in costumes, posing like stars!”
When I asked Thompson how he would sum up the experience of recreating Bugsy Malone with the Leipzig International School students, he said, with an air of sentimentality:
“To many people, taking on such a project is madness. I have done such projects in the past and, yes, there is a certain madness that kicks in and obliterates all the obstacles. Just as I don’t want my students to give up on tasks I, too, like to keep my goals fixed. Nothing, and nothing, is more pleasurable that watching the growth that happens over the course of a production.
“When there is a shared goal, and the whole company buys into the success of a show, no money can buy the collective satisfaction. As the entire production team rallies, and the buzz amplifies, then I know that the goal of uniting a community is realized. And that’s the only buzz that counts.
“As the lyrics in the finale recount, ‘you give a little love, and it all comes back to you, la la la la la la la.’ Trite, of course, but true. Jazz hands shimmering in the lowering lights.”
David Smith, LIS’s Director, commented that the students taking part would remember this experience for the rest of their lives, and as the closing song stated, “can be anything that they want to be.”
He thanked Anthony Bailey, the Secondary Principal, crediting him as the man behind the brainchild, and without whose unwavering support the show would not have gone on.
I “poysonally” believe that the students of Leipzig International School couldn’t have done a better job in re-imagining and performing Bugsy Malone in all its razzmatazz glory, and wish to echo a statement found inside the programme that was distributed to the audience: “[The play’s] success is a testament to the heart rate of Leipzig International School.”
Cover shot: LIS cast taking a bow at Schaubühne Lindenfels. (Photo credit: Rebecca Markovitz, costume director and vocal coach for Bugsy Malone)