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Alumni appear in Singing Revolution musical, discuss parallels to modern times

(From left to right) Alumni Thomas Hollow, Kelsey Lee Smith and Anthony Marciona star in the musical retelling of the Estonian independence movement, “Singing Revolution: The Musical.” (Photos courtesy of Joel D. Castro, JBC Images and Lisa Bevis. Photo illustration by Katelyn Dang/Illustrations director)

By John Arceno

Jan. 19, 2022 9:38 p.m.

This post was updated Jan. 23 at 11:45 p.m.

In the midst of political division and turmoil, “Singing Revolution: The Musical” is telling a story of peace.

The fictionalized retelling of the 1980s Estonian Singing Revolution will premiere Jan. 29 at The Broadwater Theatre in Los Angeles and will run until Feb. 20. Featuring a Euro-pop score, the musical follows the story of two star-crossed lovers in the middle of 1987 Estonia, where local revolutionaries frequently burst into song to peacefully retaliate against their Soviet occupiers. Alumnus Thomas Hollow, who plays an ensemble role, said he empathizes with the plight of the Estonians in the musical, and those who watch the performance will be able to relate to their struggles as well.

“The audience is going to connect greatly with that feeling (that there are) things that are happening in your country and wanting to be peaceful and consistent with your own values,” Hollow said.

According to The Atlantic, before the Soviet invasion, big musical festivals were set up all over Estonia, attracting thousands of audiences. During the Soviet occupation, music then became a weapon they used to oust their invaders, with 100,000 Estonians singing protest songs for five nights in 1988 and eventually achieving independence in 1991.

Alumnus Anthony Marciona said his experiences as a working actor before and after his time at UCLA have helped prepare him for the role of Vladimir Lenin’s ghost. He said his character, along with the ghost of Josef Stalin (Adam Wylie), has come back to see how their successor Mikhail Gorbachev (Peter Van Norden) is running the Soviet Union amid the Estonian Singing Revolution.

“(In the musical,) we’re at a point in the late ’80s where Gorbachev is opening up with glasnost and perestroika, and we nudge him and try to get him back to the purity of (Lenin’s) ideology, so to speak,” Marciona said. “(Wylie and I) ended up being the comic relief.”

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Since the musical combines elements of song and dance, alumnus Kelsey Lee Smith said she found her role in the dance ensemble to be difficult because she considers herself to be more of a singer than a dancer. She said she hasn’t danced in a year and a half because of the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, but fortunately, choreographer Tracey Benson helped her throughout the rehearsal process as she helped her hone her skills in dance.

Hollow said performing as both an Estonian revolutionary and a Soviet soldier poses difficulties for him as well, especially since he is also understudying for the role of Stalin’s ghost. Although the comedic reimagining of the dictators initially came as a shock to him, he said the actors’ delivery is appropriate as it strips the tyrants away from a position of power in the musical’s narrative, forcing them to take on a more passive role instead as they watch the revolution unfold before them.

With the increased concern surrounding fake news in the current media, Marciona said the audience can still resonate with the musical despite it taking place both abroad and in the past. Through the musical, he said the audience will be able to draw parallels between Soviet propaganda in Estonia and the problems concerning sensationalism in American media today.

“We’re going through these times where people are getting misinformation,” Marciona said. “Ultimately, the freedom of the people is the goal, (along with) freedom of speech and getting the truth. (The musical) shows that one small voice can make it there.”

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In particular, Hollow said a monologue spoken by James Everts, who plays the lead protagonist Taavi Tamm, encapsulates the sense of paranoia and political division in Estonia at the time. With the Soviet Union’s history of imperialism and colonialism, Hollow said Taavi is exhausted from being manipulated by the Soviets, proclaiming that the Estonians must revolt against them in a peaceful way before their own culture is dissolved in front of them.

A number of Marciona’s friends from Armenia, Estonia and Lithuania feared speaking up against the tyranny in their own homelands, and he said he resonated with the musical’s commentary surrounding the dangers of extreme political polarization. He said it is difficult to have a civil political discussion nowadays in the United States, with both sides failing to find common ground. Considering America’s current political climate, he said he hoped the musical could persuade people to be more open-minded and return to the principles of democracy the country is built on.

“Our last administration was very similar to the dictator,” Marciona said. “With (former President Donald Trump) allowing people on both sides to speak with ‘no repercussions,’ there’s no filter anymore. But it does teach us (that) we need to speak up if we need to evolve.”

Aside from teaching bits of Estonian history, Marciona said “Singing Revolution: The Musical” is bound to provoke political discussions about the current affairs of the United States. The political undertones of the show tie into the current events that are embedded in the musical’s storyline, Smith said, with parallels between the peaceful protests that occurred in the beginning of the pandemic and the 1980s Estonian Singing Revolution.

“We have a lot more in common than we think we do,” Smith said. “Even if it may seem like there are two sides to the situation, … at heart, we’re all human.”

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