The Belasco Theatre Company’s production of “The Wiz,” from Feb., 2005 COURTESY THE BELASCO THEATRE COMPANY
Shanti Belasco didn’t lose any sleep mulling over what she wanted to be when she grew up. By the time she was 13 she was choreographing for one of the greatest men she’d ever met: her father.
Edward Belasco was an actor with a theater background who in 1981 started a youth musical theater group in northern California. Shanti was about seven at the time, singing and dancing around the house.Up until she left for college she was heavily influenced by her father’s work.
“I kind of grew up in the company and learned from him, under his wing,” she says, “and then I moved away to Los Angeles. I got a degree from UCLA (in education) and I started teaching because I always loved working with kids.”
So began a career as a fourth grade schoolteacher in Torrance. However, the world of theater — with all its allure and sheer artistry — was soon to reel her back in.
“And then my father said, ‘One day I’m going to retire, and if you want to take this over…’ “I said, Well, I have my life here, I have met the man that I knew I was going to marry, and I said, What if I started a division of it down here? So I started the Southern California division which is where we are now, in Hermosa.
“That was in 2004,” Belasco continues, “so it’s been 10 years. And it’s been a joy. I began while I was teaching and then eventually stopped teaching (because) I’d basically found my two loves — teaching children and also combining singing, dancing, and musical theater. It’s my passion.”
This February the Belasco Theatre Company presented “Oliver!” COURTESY THE BELASCO THEATRE COMPANY
Bringing it back home
Ten years. Well, that’s a milestone, isn’t it?
The Belasco Theatre Company accepts up to 40 students, their ages ranging from 7 to 18 (although classes for even younger students have recently begun). Each season the company stages two shows, in February and in June, the most recent one being “School House Rock.” But now just on its heels there’s another one, “All Shook Up.” It’s taking place this weekend.
“This is our alumni show,” Belasco says. “A lot of the kids who started with me in 2004 were 10.” “All Shook Up” was among the company’s favorite past productions — and they’ve had 20 of them to look back on. It’s a lively work, inspired by and built around the songs of Elvis Presley: “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Jailhouse Rock,” to name a few.
“They’re in college, they’re older, and the level and the quality of what they’re doing is just highly professional,” Belasco says. “A lot of them are in school for musical theater. They have more knowledge of the outside world now, and they’re bringing it back.
“Being at the rehearsals with them is a joy to me,” she adds. “It’s almost like they’re my kids — we’ve been together for so many years.”
Shanti Belasco watches as her students rehearse for this weekend’s “All Shook Up” COURTESY SHANTI BELASCO
Putting in those hours
Somewhat reluctantly, because he so enjoyed what he was doing, Shanti Belasco’s father retired. He’s 82 now. But what he started up north shows no signs of slowing down.
“I’ve followed in his footsteps,” Belasco says, and other than being one of the first such theater groups for young people in the South Bay she points out something else she believes sets her company apart from others:
“We perform over three weekends so the kids really get a chance to see what it’s like to do a mini-Broadway-style show, and they get the chance to grow on stage.”
Three-and-a-half months of learning, practicing, and rehearsing is one thing, but performing in front of a live audience is something else. And so those extra few shows not only help the kids refine their skills, it also builds their confidence and stage presence.
This is another reason why the company limits enrollment to 40.
“In that way,” Belasco says, “everyone receives a lot of personal training.” Her assistants include Jesse Guess, who’s back now as an alumni choreographer, and vocal director Melissa Harding, who’s been onboard for ten years.
“Melissa Harding began at the age of 10 performing with my father,” Belasco explains. “When she moved to Los Angeles I hired her. It’s kind of like a family feel.”
The company mostly takes on the tried and true gems of musical theater, but they’ve got a sort of sampler platter in the works.
“This fall we’re doing something called ‘Belasco’s Broadway,’ like a musical theater revue with different numbers from different musicals. That’s going to give the students an opportunity to also have dance classes within it.
“When you say children’s theater sometimes people get scared away,” Belasco says, but she points out that they have high quality sound equipment and take care with the costumes. This paper’s late entertainment writer, Tom Fitt, himself well versed in musical theater, had nothing but praise for the company’s high standards and professionalism.
This weekend’s event is also intended to show the local community what resides in their midst, whether or not they’ve attended any of the previous 20 productions. A pre-show gala on Saturday includes a cash bar and hors d’oeuvres.
Shanti Belasco is proud of the young people who’ve studied with her and their accomplishments since. But they can make her prouder still.
“I can’t wait for the day when one of them is on Broadway and I get to go see them,” She said.
“All Shook Up”
Where: Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach
When: 7:30 p.m. tonight, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
How much: $20 adults; $15 seniors, children (under 12)
Call: (310) 379-4208