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Lifted Up

SPARC's big Christmas concert aims to help transform the lives of youth through art.

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The formula for success, as the great comedian W.C. Fields once said, is "never work with animals or children." The School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community, known as SPARC, cheerfully violates this hoary showbiz recipe Sunday with a mix of enthusiastic kids, a heap of local talent and a dash of celebrity to brew up what performer Susan Greenbaum promises is not just a show but a "a life-changing experience."

What transforms this Live Art concert from any other all-star event is the talent and enthusiasm of more than 200 youthful performers. The program, which brings together a balanced group of children with and without development disabilities, is the vision of actress and educator Erin Thomas-Foley.

"Some special needs students wanted to audition for the big shows," Thomas-Foley says. "But the reality is that when a student can't raise their arms above their head they cannot execute conventional choreography. The question was how to create a new type of show, as big as Broadway, with everyone included."

Her concept — a music concert where children of all abilities share the stage with great musicians — became a reality last June at the Carpenter Center. The performing local artists included Greenbaum, Robbin Thompson, Steve Bassett, Jessie Harper, Josh Small, Daniel Clarke and Samson Trinh and the Upper East Side Big Band. Additional star power was provided by Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jason Mraz, a Richmond area native and alumnus of SPARC. All are returning for the Dec. 22 gala, joined by singer K.D. Lang, René Marie and Christina Perri. Also, Mraz has enlisted his friend, Academy Award nominee Richard Jenkins, as narrator [see page 30].

The Tree of Life is the through line of the show — the organizing principle that ties together the individual performances. Through a series of parablelike vignettes, what Thomas-Foley calls "moments when our hearts are active," the songs explore life's branching and intersections: falling in love, having a child, leaving home. The vision of the show was inspired in part by K.D. Lang's lovely cover of Jane Siberry's "The Valley." Clarke, who plays keyboards in Lang's Siss Boom Band, made the connection.

While it probably didn't take Lang's participation to bring René Marie back to her former home in Richmond to support the cause, it was a definite plus. "I love that woman," Marie says. "What a privilege to be on the same stage."

Marie, riding a wave of positive reviews for her Eartha Kitt tribute album, "I Want to be Evil," had the perfect song for the show. "Blessings" took about two weeks after her brother died, coalescing from a melody she hummed to him at his hospital bedside. A powerful and gentle song, as yet unrecorded, it's become a highlight of her live shows. "When people buy a CD they always ask if this is the one with 'Blessings' on it," she says.

Marie, Lang and the others will slip into a show long in the making. The separate sections of the performance started preparing in their SPARC classes 11 months ago, creating the dances, the singing and sign-language choir. In the focus and discipline of preparation, the distinction between the varying abilities of the young performers dissolve. "Once we start, all those borders go away," Thomas-Foley says. "We've all seen these transitions ... all of a sudden the student with autism is helping the others. Once you give a human the freedom to be empathetic and loving they will do it themselves. This thing is bigger than all of us."

The result? "It's very hard to put into words," Greeenbaum says about June's show. "It was one of the most incredible nights I have ever been part of — one awesome, cool thing after another. Here's Jason Mraz, this international rock star, and with the kids he was without any airs, genuine and kind. There was nothing but love from this guy."

People came expecting a nice little show with kids found something transcendent. "It was like there was a spell over everything on both sides of the stage," Greenbaum says. "The audience was so full of positive energy. That's thrilling as a performer and you feed it right back so there is this big, beautiful, endless circle of joy. It was really, truly magical." S

SPARC's "Live Art: the Tree of Life" takes place Dec. 22 at 6 p.m. at the Landmark Theater. Tickets are $30-$65. Information at sparconline.org.

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