On the film festival circuit and seeking a streaming deal, the Spotlight Musical Theater company certainly does not lack ambition.
Part of the Belong Disability Program at the Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, it has been putting on musical theatre productions for 11 years.
The actors and many workers have learning disabilities. The church boasts a shiny two-tier auditorium and stage for professional shows.
When the group began to plan its 11th annual performance for the 2021-22 season, they decided to create a documentary about the process from casting to the premiere.
The documentary is no shoestring affair; big-time director Thaddeus D Matula, famous for sports documentaries with broadcaster ESPN, is brought in.
The result is a classic rehearsal-to-opening night saga from the initial euphoria among the chosen stars to nerves, chaotic rehearsals, outbreaks of pessimism and, finally, the triumphant performance of the show, In Our Hearts, to a full house.
But there is more. Shortly before casting begins, star of previous shows Austin Davenport dies unexpectedly. His young widow Christi Hockel-Davenport, a leading performer, vows she will continue, despite her palpable grief.
Then, tragedy strikes again. Several months in, a much-loved member of the production team is in a fatal car accident. The company is stunned and consumed with grief. Director Lisa Arnold becomes shouty and short tempered, and it appears the whole thing might fall apart. The performers support her through this grief-riven phase.
Matula states the film’s guiding principle was “the individuals will speak for themselves and reveal to us their world”. And this they do.
A transgender autistic woman talks us though her journey as an actress and the difficult pathway to acceptance with her parents.
A talented young black musician faces the cancellation of his longed-for drum solo as a fellow performer can’t handle the noise – “why can’t he play a flute?” she pleads.
The two romantic stars develop off-stage feelings for each other.
Matula has skilfully woven all this together. But his real triumph is the ethos of his work. Amid the dramas, the tragedies and the ups and downs, the actors’ voices are clear and their vulnerabilities, resilience, talents, flaws and emotions are highlighted not by a voiceover or others but clearly and fluently by themselves. Great stuff.