‘Midsummer in Newtown,’ opening Friday in Santa Monica, shows music and theater helping Sandy Hook shooting survivors

By Bliss Bowen

It isn’t necessary to have grown up in a small Eastern town or New England to be moved by Lloyd Kramer’s “Midsummer in Newtown,” but if you did it will likely touch you on a more personal level.

His picturesque scenes of Victorian houses, sturdy old trees, aged cemeteries and an old-fashioned Fourth of July parade wordlessly establish Newtown, Conn., as a tight-knit community of history, tradition and camaraderie — and if you grew up in a similar environment, it renews the shock of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, in which 20 first-graders and six adults were murdered in this supposedly safe, can’t-happen-here refuge from urban violence.

Two months later, Newtown resident Michael Baroody founded NewArts (newarts.org), a program to use performing arts to help children heal. He recruited New York director Michael Unger, and in 2014 a pop musical version of Shakespeare’s comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was developed: “A ROCKIN’ Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the subject of Kramer’s sweet but sobering documentary.

At one juncture Unger explains, “The play starts out in a world in discord. … It’s about finding harmony.”

Kramer shows him encouraging auditioning kids to bring their own personality to Shakespeare’s formal text; the results are comical, and heartening.

One of those children is Tain Gregory (cast as one of the Rustics in the play), a wide-eyed boy with a speech impediment who is observant and brave beyond his 9 years; while hiding under a table during the school massacre, he put his arm around a special-needs friend and assured him they would be OK.

Another is 11-year-old Sammy Vertucci (cast as the Mustard Seed Fairy), a chubby girl with an infectious smile who had withdrawn from family and favorite activities after the shooting; when she gets a callback for the play and cheerfully announces, “I’m really happy with myself,” you can feel the significance of her triumph. “Midsummer in Newtown” endears because of the humanity of scenes like that.

More on-camera interactions with a greater cross-section of students might have offered a more detailed picture of post-Sandy Hook life. Instead, Kramer shows how Unger, the show’s composer, choreographer and set designer strive to empower their youthful charges through art and performance. He also interviews parents, whose pain and pride comes across in equal, dignified measure; and Sandy Hook music teacher Maryrose Kristopik, who protected students during the shooting by locking them in a closet. Onscreen, she expresses visible pleasure at students’ resilience as they discover their own creativity.

Kramer captures revealing moments — some amusing, such as twin sisters’ rapid-fire summaries of “Taming of the Shrew” and “Romeo and Juliet”; others endearing, like the new thespians giggling at their costumes.

Most, however, are more poignant: a girl braiding another young girl’s hair, kids nervously tugging on zippers, clenching their hands, or standing with arms crossed and blank yet apprehensive faces.

Those quick images add subtle complexity to the story. It’s multi-layered, and anyone expecting a polemic about gun violence or political stasis will be disappointed. The decision to focus on a select group of children results in strong visuals and moving reminders of what was lost at Sandy Hook.

After the play has closed and Kramer visits Tain Gregory and Sammy Vertucci at home and they start crying, it’s obvious they grieve more than the play’s end.

The film’s message of hope and healing resonates because Kramer resists easy sentiment or cheerleading. Parallel to the “Midsummer” production, he follows jazz saxophonist/music professor Jimmy Greene and wife Nelba, parents of Sandy Hook victim Ana Márquez-Greene, as they struggle to give meaning to their loss by renewing their commitment to compassion (including for their daughter’s murderer) and the belief that “love wins.” They support son Isaiah at hockey games; Nelba launches the Ana Grace Project (anagraceproject.org); and Greene eventually records an album dedicated to Ana. (“Beautiful Life,” Greene’s eighth album, was released in November 2014 by Mack Avenue and nominated for two Grammy Awards, though Kramer doesn’t mention that.)

Footage from Greene’s release concert at Western Connecticut State University is included toward film’s end. Afterward, Greene notes that he’s thankful to be surrounded by people who understand that “there is no happy ending. … We’re gonna need understanding for a long, long time.”

“Midsummer in Newtown” opens at Laemmle Monica Film Center, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, on Friday, Feb. 3; screenings are at 3:10 p.m. ($7-$9) and 7:30 p.m. ($9-$12). Call (310) 478-3836 or visit facebook.com/midsummerinnewtown.

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