‘Most Valuable Players’ charts the rewarding experience of being in a high school musical

'Most Valuable Players' follows the journey of high school musical theater companies — Photo courtesy of Virgil Films

Most Valuable Players, the new documentary about high school musical theater, is an often moving account of talented teenagers striving for excellence. Their goal is to secure a nomination at the annual Freddy Awards, a ceremony hosted at the State Theatre in Easton, Pa., that recognizes the best of the best in the local high school theater programs.

The film, which runs 96 minutes and is part of Oprah Winfrey’s Documentary Club, covers the arts community with a rather sentimental eye. Each of the top high schools produce their musicals — including Bye Bye Birdie and two Les Miserables productions — and then they all wait with bated breath for the big announcements on whether their shows will be invited to perform on television at the Freddys (so-named because of the ghost that “watches over” the State Theatre). The typical rubric of a “student competition” documentary is followed, with many scenes focusing on the arduous buildup to the competition and then the ultimate prizes. Similar outlines can be seen in Spellbound and last year’s Jig.

What makes Most Valuable Players so enjoyable is that it doesn’t judge any of the subjects in the film. All of the students come off as motivated, sincere and good-hearted. Their teachers come off as dedicated, inspiring and hard-working. A couple of the interviews touch on the underbelly of theatrical awards (having the students steeped in bitter rivalry and focusing too much on competition), but any negative thoughts are largely missing from the film. Director Matthew D. Kallis keeps things as positive as a musical.

Watching the students progress through their young careers is moving. These teenagers strive for excellence and their resulting shows are impressive. The productions at these high schools in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley are top-of-the-line, featuring elaborate sets, intricate staging and fine choreography. In fact, the musicals are so well done that it begs the question: What about the school districts who don’t have the resources to produce a show that can cost northward of $10,000? We find out that some of these theater programs are self-sufficient, but their facilities are highly desirable. One scene shows the cast of Les Miserables circulating around a rotating stage. Other high schools need to perform in their cafe-gym-otoriums.

Still, the Freddys are obviously an infectious salute to the arts community. Shelley Brown, the CEO of the State Theatre, and Vic Kumma, the late coordinator of the awards ceremony, are worthy cheerleaders in the documentary. And the film’s most emotional moment doesn’t come from a resilient solo or ensemble piece from the students, but from a tribute Brown pays to Kumma, who was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer during the filming of Most Valuable Players. It’s a fitting capstone that Kumma’s final season as the Freddys coordinator should have been captured for this effective documentary.

Most Valuable Players will delight musical-theater fans, but it will also impress the casual viewer. The dedication of these student performers and their supportive teachers can teach many lessons, both on stage and off.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Most Valuable Players

  • 2011, originally premiered on the OWN Network and now available on DVD

  • Directed by Matthew D. Kallis

  • Featuring Shelley Brown, Vic Kumma and many spirited high school students

  • Running time: 96 minutes

  • Rating: ★★★☆

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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