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Special K 2005
The entertainment biz: Performing in Special K!'s 2005 show are, from left, Jabari DeRon '05, Debbie Marshall '05, Ramon Rodriguez '06 and Jae Choi '05.

Dramatic presence

Now in its 26th year, Special K! Revue puts the spotlight on student talent

By Rebecca Lindell

"Five, six, seven, eight!  Jazz hands, cross, turn, step. Forward together, 'K'! Forward together, 'K'!"

It is 10:30 on a frigid February night in Evanston. Far from the Jacobs Center, in a hallway in Northwestern University's theater arts building, a dozen female Kellogg students rehearse the steps to the 2006 Special K! Revue's opening number.

They are quick studies. Their eyes glued to choreographer Katrina Borisjuk '06, they are soon moving in unison, legs kicking, hips twisting, fingers snapping to a hip-hop rhythm. A pony-tailed Borisjuk shouts out the count.

"Back and together, go, kick. Down, one, two. Up. Clap!"

Next door in a glass-enclosed conference room, the troupe's male contingent practice a song. Their voices blend in deep harmony as a keyboard picks out the melody.

"We've got skits and we've got songs. Get loud and laugh and clap and cheer — we want to hear it from you!"

Executive Director Ryan Fuller '06 paces between the two groups, often smiling, sometimes furrowing his brows. For a cast that has just begun rehearsing, he feels they're in decent shape.

"Everyone's got a good attitude," says the sandy-haired Fuller, a veteran improv performer and one of the creators of the previous year's revue. "Everything's coming along like it's supposed to."

But as with any production, Fuller expects the drama to mount over the next 12 weeks as opening night approaches.

"We're still in the honeymoon phase. Everyone's just so excited to be a part of this," he says. "After spring break, it will feel like it's taking up a lot more time and people will start tearing their hair out. It'll probably be a little more stressful."

Talent to spare

It's a ritual repeated each spring, drawing as much from the Kellogg School's can-do spirit as from Mickey Rooney's rallying cry to thespians everywhere: "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" Now in its 26th year, Special K! Revue is part satire, part musical, and 100 percent showcase for the astonishing array of talent in the Kellogg student body.

In addition to several dozen performers, the production involves up to 100 additional students who do everything from write the music to build the sets to publicize the show.

Preparation for the May production begins in October, when aspiring Kellogg comedy writers start pitching skit ideas to members of the Special K! board. In a typical year, the creative team might review more than 50 skits, eventually whittling down the final selections to about 15.

Meanwhile, other students are writing lyrics and adapting songs for the show. By early February, the Special K! board is ready to conduct auditions, a lengthy process that attracts scores of hopeful singers, dancers and actors.

"You see so many talents that you would never have expected to see in people you go to school with," Fuller says. "Everybody who auditioned this year was great. It was very hard to decide whom to cut."

Once the show is cast, rehearsals begin in earnest. Production members must find an additional 12 hours a week to devote to rehearsing — no easy task, given their already-crammed Kellogg schedules. The time commitment balloons to 20 to 30 hours each week as opening night draws near.

"The band never rehearses with the cast until the Sunday night before the show, so it's only during that last week that everything gels," Fuller says. "It's highly stressful, but everyone seems to pull it together in the end."

Special K 1980  
Stand-up guys: Making their debut in Special K! Revue's first show, Robert Nunez, left, and Stephen Labelle (both '81) perform the skit "Who's in Finance," one of 25 acts packed into the 1980 student production.  

A tradition is born

That's one thing that hasn't changed in the 26 years since Special K! first opened to rave reviews. The show has always been a celebration of the school's strengths, not to mention an affectionate jab at some of its idiosyncrasies.

The roots of this B-school burlesque date back to the spring of 1979, when first-year Kellogg students Bill Jerome '80 and Frank McGann '80 contributed a hit song to the Waa-Mu Show, Northwestern's annual undergraduate musical review.

Jerome, who had written sketch comedy in college, was soon summoned to the office of Ed Wilson, then the Kellogg School's dean of students. Wilson recalls that he "begged" Jerome to unleash his talents at Kellogg  — as well as those of his classmates.

"I like these shows," Wilson says. "I'd hear colleagues at other schools talk about their spring musical revues and I would think, 'I wish our students would do something like that, too!'"

Jerome didn't need any more coaxing, especially after he learned that Betsy Stolte Youngdahl '81 had signed on as co-producer. After distributing a questionnaire to gauge student interest, they soon had more than 100 volunteers offering to write, direct, compose music, sing, act and work behind the scenes.

On May 9 and 10, 1980, the curtains opened on "Up for Sale," a satirical look at the school that had just been renamed in honor of a $10 million gift.

Sung to the tune of "Summertime," the opening number poked fun at the administration's efforts to raise the school's profile. "Bummer time, and our image is sinking /Stanford's climbing, and old Harvard is high / Well we don't publish those cases, and we don't have nice weather / So hey there Dean Jacobs, what should we try?"

"And then Brian Curtiss '80 enters, pushing a wheelbarrow holding a miniature version of Leverone Hall across the stage," recalls Wilson, his green eyes twinkling at the memory. "He was calling, 'School! School for sale!' It was just terrific. It brought the house down."

Both shows sold out, and a tradition was born. Future shows included skits like "Disco Accounting," featuring a chorus line of dancing CPAs, and "Star Wars," which showcased Professor Gene Lavengood in the role of Yoda. When Dean Emeritus Donald P. Jacobs stepped down in 2001, the show riffed on his long tenure with the theme of "Who Let the Dean Out?"

In recent years the show has traveled to San Francisco and New York, entertaining Kellogg alumni and friends on the coasts. And each fall, the previous year's cast returns to campus to reprise the spring show for the entering students.

"We now have a tradition that lets students explore their talents and become the renaissance people we know they can be," says Jerome, who still counts his Special K! friends as among his closest from Kellogg.

"It's exciting, and it's also humbling to see where Special K! is today," he adds. "The first show only worked because of the selfless contributions of all who were involved. Everybody was working together to support and encourage each other.  It truly embodied the Kellogg spirit of teamwork."

Flashback 1986  "I found the relationship between Kellogg students and the school a very healthy, professional and cooperative one. Kellogg assumes, and rightly so, that everyone entering the program has a wealth of experience and possesses solid judgment. When we approached the deans with a request or concern, it was always greeted with the utmost consideration. Like any organization, the more open and constructive the relationship is between key parties, the better. Having the students and the administration in sync, understanding each others needs, perspectives and constraints, only added to the overall academic and social experience."  Lori Winters Samuels '86, Graduate Management Association president

Bubble time

Twenty-six years later, that spirit fills the rehearsal space as Fuller glances at his watch. It's close to midnight now in the Theater and Interpretive Arts building, and the rehearsal is drawing to a close.

"Thanks, guys," Borisjuk tells the cast. "You rock."

"Anybody feel like it's hopeless?" Fuller asks his cast.

"I'd say it's a step above that," one member replies.

"It's bubble time," says someone else. The group moves into a huddle, their arms encircling each other. Their voices merge in a round that has become the traditional closing for Special K! rehearsals over the years.

"Special K love is bubbling, bubbling! Special K love is in my soul. Special K love is bubbling, bubbling! Special K love is in my soul."

With a final, exultant "Special K!" the group springs apart. Donning parkas and hoisting backpacks, the cast members spill onto the deserted Northwestern campus, energized for a performance that is not so distant from this wintry night.

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University