By Ron Hayes
Devin Dykstra is an apple. His brother, Blake, is a banana.
On a Monday evening in May, as the two Manalapan brothers waited in a mirrored rehearsal hall at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, it was essential they remember this.
Devin’s the apple, Blake’s the banana.
They also had to remember when to clap, when to sway, when to wave their American flags and when to let rip with the kazoos.
Devin is 11, Blake is 9.
The median age in Manalapan is 61.
“I grew up here myself,” says their mother, Kim Dykstra. “It’s a wonderful town, but there aren’t a lot of kids their own age around.”
And then, three years ago, she discovered the Young Singers of the Palm Beaches — six countywide choruses for boys and girls 8 to 18.
Now the Dykstra boys have about 350 friends.
“The hardest part is the choreography,” admits Devin, who joined in 2009. “But that first year I had trouble getting to the stage.”
This is where the apples and bananas come in.
When the 78 members of the Treble Chorus march onto the Kravis Center’s main stage for their part in the Young Singers’ 10th anniversary concert May 19, Devin and the other “apples” file in from the left, Blake and his fellow “bananas” from the right.
Knowing what you are tells you where you’re supposed to be.
“The hardest work is the choreography,” agrees Blake, “but it makes me feel great. I love hearing the applause.”
The Young Singers of the Palm Beaches was founded in 2003 by a group of local music teachers who envisioned a nonprofit children’s chorus where only the singing mattered. Not race, religion, income — or shrinking school budgets.
That first season featured 79 singers and two choirs.
At the spring concert this year, 350 singers would perform.
In between, they’ve sung all over Palm Beach County, as well as in Boston, New York, Vienna and Disney World.
“Right now, our biggest challenge is how to manage our growth,” says Beth Clark, the executive director. “The minute Glee came on TV, our auditions went from 60 to 100 that June. Suddenly it was cool to sing.”
But not inexpensive. The YSPB has an annual budget of $600,000. Singers pay a tuition of $650 a year.
“And that’s only about 34 percent of our budget,” Clark says. “The rest I have to raise. But we’ve never turned a qualified child away because of financial need.”
About 20 percent of the members receive some sort of help with tuition, but the other children don’t know who these are, and they don’t care. They don’t have time.
From August to May, they are meeting for 90 minutes every week with artistic director D. Shawn Berry, four conductors and two accompanists, learning both the music and the moves for their holiday and spring concerts.
For the older singers, the choreography is sophisticated and complicated. Real Broadway show-tune dancing.
For the younger singers, like Devin and Blake, it’s unsophisticated — and complicated.
Just try singing You’re A Grand Old Flag while standing on risers, swaying from side to side — one row swaying left when the other row sways right — and everybody waving little American flags in time to the tune.
At this Monday evening rehearsal, a week before the concert, Berry was as attentive to the apples-and-bananas aspect of the show as he was to the music.
“Sweetheart,” he told one little girl, “I don’t see where you’re standing …”
They had only two more last-minute rehearsals before the Sunday night show.
“I think I did pretty well,” Devin said after Berry had led the Treble Chorus through a perfunctory run-through. “But the the real concert is a lot more fun.”
Blake was equally self-confident.
“I think I sounded fantastic,” he announced.
And now it’s 7:05 p.m. on Sunday night, May 19, and the lights in the Alexander W. Dreyfoos Concert Hall are dimming. The stragglers rush to their seats, and all 350 Young Singers find their places in the dark.
The chorus is so big it overflows the stage, down the sides, into the aisles.
This year, the spring concert is titled Ubuntu, an African word that signifies the interdependence of all humanity. Mark Hayes, a nationally recognized composer, has written a world-premiere anthem for them.
I am me because you are you, they sang, softly at first, then louder, louder.
I am who I am because of who you are
And these kids sounded … absolutely fantastic.
Even if you were not a parent, grandparent or close family friend, they sounded flabbergastingly good.
The Young Singers of the Palm Beaches are amateurs, but they are not amateurish.
On the upbeat fiddle tune Cripple Creek and the reverent hymn Exultate Justi in Domino, they were upbeat and reverent.
Grace, a new arrangement of Amazing Grace by Hayes, was inspired, and when the lights went down for the pop hit Fireflies and the Intermezzo chorus sang it while rhythmically sparking tiny flashlights in the dark, the audience broke into spontaneous applause.
For an hour and half, they sang somber spirituals —Peace Like A River — and frothy pop songs — Rockin’ Robin.
When Cris Carianna sang and danced The Brotherhood of Man from How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, you wondered if maybe a Broadway touring company had wandered onto the stage unannounced. He was that good.
And then, just before the final reprise of Ubuntu, the Treble Chorus arrives, apples on the left, bananas on the right.
The T-shirts and blue jeans are gone. Devin and Blake are grown-up and spiffy in black shirts, slacks and royal blue neckties, along with everyone else.
They begin with Alleluia! I Will Sing … a song of love and freedom.
Then comes I Whistle A Happy Tune, from The King & I, but they don’t whistle the chorus. They all whip out kazoos and the audience goes wild.
And now the George M. Cohan medley.
Devin, the veteran singer, stands tall and dignified, reaching the back row, sure of himself.
Blake, new this year, has somehow mastered the art of grinning from ear to ear while singing his heart out.
You’re a grand old flag!
You’re a high-flying flag!
The entire chorus is swaying in time, this row left, that row right, waving their flags, Yankee Doodle Dandies all, and suddenly audience can’t help whistling, cheering and clapping along.
“Listen to me, kids,” you want to tell every one of them, “you went out there apples and bananas tonight. But you came back stars.”
Beginning July 15, the Young Singers of the Palm Beaches will offer a three-week workshop in musical theater with master classes taught by guest artists direct from Broadway. For information about auditions and fees, visit www.yspb.org.