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Their moment in the spotlight

October 10th, 2017 2:34 PM

Leo Gonzalez (center) in "Fun Home" at Victory Gardens Theater. | Photo by Liz Lauren

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing reporter

Dream Big. The advice that Tina Reynolds gives to her theater students as well as her own children, when taken to heart, really pays off.

"They will soar if they can find complete joy in doing what they love," said Reynolds, performing-arts artistic director and program manager for BRAVO at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park. 

"Here, the students soar on stage and in life — gaining confidence, maintaining good grades and learning time management."

One Brooks eighth-grader soared right onto the Chicago stage when he started acting professionally earlier this fall. Reynolds was contacted by a Chicago casting agent, resulting in auditions for 13 BRAVO students. Scoring a role was Leo Gonzalez, who is playing Christian Bechdel in Fun Home at Victory Gardens Theater.

He trained for the part this spring to prepare him for acting in the role of the oldest brother out of three siblings, who, Leo said, "thinks he knows a lot and is a pretty fun character to play."

Prior to this, Leo, who is 13, had no other training outside of BRAVO where he has appeared in as many at 12 productions.

"BRAVO taught me all the necessities in the theater," Leo said. "I've learned how to always be working and manage my time with school."

He keeps his regular school schedule while appearing in Fun Home five days per week. When the show ran on Broadway, it won five Tony awards, including Best Musical. It follows the tale of graphic novelist's coming out, ultimate acceptance, and her family memories.

Another Oak Park native hitting the Chicago stage is Tina Reynold's son, Justin. The 27-year-old is playing Smokey Robinson in Motown the Musical, a 35-week long, traveling, production from New York that officially opened its six-day Broadway in Chicago run at the Cadillac Palace Theatre downtown last week.

"Motown music has a special place in my heart," Justin said. "To say I am excited is an understatement. To play tribute to Smokey Robinson, all the hits and what Berry Gordy created is a blessing. It's a dream come true."

Reynolds and his sister grew up around performance; their parents had a musical production company in Michigan that put on shows for events.

"It's just in me since I was born because that's what my family did," he said. "When I was 5 or 6, I was falling asleep on a speaker. At age 12, I got a supporting role in Chicago."

That role, in the musical Comfortable Shoes, earned him a Jeff Award nomination for Actor in a Supporting Role in 2003 and ultimately moved his family to Oak Park.

While the younger Reynolds was attending Brooks, his mom volunteered. When there was an opening to direct Grease at the school, she took it. Reynolds was then offered a full-time job to manage and oversee BRAVO, a position she has held for 15 years. 

BRAVO puts on a minimum of four shows and two workshops each school year and another five during the summer.

"Everything I dreamt that I wanted it to be, it is," she said. "It's been an amazing opportunity to grow it and build it and be surrounded by amazing people you can collaborate with. We support and build each other up."

Singing his way through Motown, with tunes including "Shop Around" and "You've Really Got a Hold On Me," at one point the younger Reynolds held a perfect note so long, completely filling the historic theater with his voice, the crowd erupted in thunderous applause and cheers.

Justin imparts his own wisdom to those younger who are interested in theater.

"It's going to be tough, but stay true to your work ethic," he said. "Go above and beyond. You never know who else is going to be in the room."

Other Oak Parkers currently appearing on the Chicago stage are three young people with roles in Billy Elliot at Porchlight Music Theatre — OPRF sophomore Katelyn Montgomery, Whittier fifth-grader Alex Medina, and second-grader Gabriel Robert.

Fun Home is recommended for 13+ and runs through Nov. 12. For tickets/info: victorygardens.org. Billy Elliot runs through Nov. 19. Tickets/more: porchlightlightmusictheatre.org.