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Inspiring show earns Upstage Revolution first 1st of the season

Upstage Revolution's show uses costuming to help depict the transition from struggle and dying to rebirth and survival.1 / 3
Upstage Revolution is pictured here with their first place trophy from the Onalaska competition. (Submitted photos)2 / 3
Upstage Revolution is pictured here on stage in Onalaska, Wis.3 / 3

Hastings High School's show choirs perform consistently well, year after year. The top choir, Riverside Company, routinely earns grand champion awards and long lists of caption awards, like they did just last week.

But before the HHS singers make it to Riverside's stage, many of them first compete with Upstage Revolution, the school's prep division choir.

HHS has three show choirs: Divaz, Upstage Revolution and Riverside Company. While Divaz is for incoming freshmen girls only, Upstage Revolution is the first show choir at HHS where both male and female voices come together, explained Michelle Braun, director of Upstage Revolution. On the Upstage crew are boys and girls from all four grades, as it's where incoming freshmen boys start their show choir career, and it's where girls perform after Divaz and before advancing onto Riverside Company.

"It is fascinating to see them interact with each other," Braun said.

This year's show is extremely personal to Braun, who has been directing Upstage Revolution for three years. The show is designed around the idea of survival and inspired by her husband's ongoing battle with brain cancer.

The show takes its audience on a journey, starting with the song "Human" by The Killers, "because we're all human," Braun said. It progresses to a darker theme of death with a mashup of "Killing Me Softly" and then onto "Live Like We're Dying," which was Braun's husband's contribution, she said. She said this part of the show is intended to convey a sense of dying without being too depressing.

What comes next is the ballad, a requirement of any show choir performance. This year's ballad for Upstage Revolution is "Beautiful Things" by Gungor, and this is the climax and turning point of the show.

"It's this idea of at some point in any struggle, you become a new creation," Braun said.

To drive the message home, Upstage Revolution completes a costume change in the middle of the ballad, something that's fairly unique to the show choir scene, Braun said. There's also a dance solo to represent the hope that is always present in any struggle.

From there, the show takes on new energy, launching into a medley of "Alive" by Sia, a girls-only performance that allows the boys a chance to change costumes, and then the boys-only "Stayin' Alive" from Grease, which gives the girls time for their costume change. That transition is followed by "Good to be Alive" by Andy Grammer, and the show concludes with a powerful mashup of "I Will Survive" and "Survivor."

"It's a real empowering show," Braun said.

Although it was inspired by her husband's battle with cancer, the theme is one that hits close to home for just about everyone, and the students performing have taken it to heart.

"They're all surviving something," Braun said. "... Even though it's personal to me, it's a universal hardship."

In rehearsals, Upstage uses that universality of the theme to improve their performance.

"They put great energy into it," Braun said.

One of the things they're still working on is sending all that energy to the back of an auditorium, to make sure they can showcase it to 1,000 people, not just the 10 sitting in the front row. Although if their first performance of the season is any indication, that's a goal they're not far from.

On Jan. 14, Upstage Revolution joined Riverside Company at a competition in Onalaska, Wis. It was the first competition of the year for the prep choir. Two years ago, they attended the meet and placed third in their division. Last year, they didn't go at all. This year, they took first right out of the gate, despite encountering what Braun described as a chaotic start caused by a miscommunication that cost them half their warm up time.

Upstage took first place out of eight groups with 768 points out of a possible 1,000, beating the second-place choir by a "significant" eight points, Braun said.

She said she could tell their first song was a little squirly as the students adjusted to the sound in the unfamiliar space, but after that, "every song got better and better," she said.

The judges sat in the back of the audience space. Upstage got high marks for their transitions, which are always the weakest part of any show choir performance, Braun said. They also appreciated the flow of the performance.

Of course, Upstage still has some work to do. Braun said that over the coming weeks they'll be working more on their movements and fixing some of their stage pictures as a result of some judging comments and working on taking their vocal sound to the next level. One judge said that Upstage has a good sound, but it's safe, Braun said. The judge even offered to work specifically with Upstage, an offer that's rarely given, Braun said.

There's still time to develop the show this season. Upstage next performs Feb. 4 at the Eau Claire Winterfest and then Feb. 11 at Lacrosse Logan. They host the Swingin' on the River competition here in Hastings Feb. 25, where all three Hastings choirs will give exhibition performances. Then there's the Totino-Grace contest March 3 and the season-ending finale exhibition back here in Hastings March 27.

Braun said that Upstage has some tough challenges ahead, with some especially strong teams scheduled to take the stage in some of those upcoming competitions. But she's confident in their ability.

"We train like a varsity group," she said.

They use the same training regimen Riverside Company uses and even get to work alongside the same backup band that Riverside Company uses.

Their efforts, Braun said, put Upstage Revolution within striking distance of beating even some of the varsity teams.