'Song of Parkland' is a moving but inconsistent look at the power of theater

Sunday, February 10, 2019 - 4:44pm

HBO

NOSELL

A year ago, Melody Herzfeld was leading rehearsals for Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s annual children’s musical when a shooter opened fire in the building and the alarms went off. Thinking it was a run-of-the-mill fire drill, her 65 students trudged outside before Herzfeld realized it was something more and herded them back in to take shelter in a storage closet. They waited there for two hours before authorities took them to safety.

What is it they say in the theater business? The show must go on. And so it did, though the production, a sweet adventure tale called “Yo, Vikings!”, was postponed by a few months. “Song of Parkland,” a half-hour documentary from HBO, follows Herzfeld and her students in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting as they head back to rehearsals and grapple with the awful tragedy that befell their community.

That there is healing power in art and song is probably not news to anyone. And it’s pointed out several times over the half hour. But “Song of Parkland” is more than that: It’s an ode to everything that’s special about high school drama programs, those joyful, formative, underfunded spaces. In the theater, one student says, “we don’t have to worry about being judged or worry about what people are going to think because this is our safe place.”

“Song of Parkland” makes the case that experience in the performing arts department — where students are regularly encouraged to find their voices — has been foundational to the activism that emerged from the school’s students. “My same kids that are my theater kids are out there doing speeches all over the place, those are my kids too,” Herzfeld says.

Herzfeld is warm and poised — in a sense, she’s the drama teacher we all had. If there’s a common thread throughout the documentary, it’s her. But the big flaw of “Song of Parkland” is that it’s never quite clear what the documentary is about. Is it about Herzfeld? The drama department? Student activism? Amy Schatz, the film’s director, relies on the abundance of footage and news clips from the shooting’s aftermath. But her product suffers from a loose, meandering directorial hand. At so many points, “Song of Parkland” would benefit from additional editing and direction.

The documentary ends at last summer’s Tony Awards, where Stoneman Douglas students performed “Seasons of Love” to a moved audience. It’s an easy, expected place to conclude the story, the students now on a grand stage. But it’s a little disappointing that “Song of Parkland” has let us become invested in the small but cathartic Viking musical only to shift gears altogether.

But it still leaves off on a moving note, a speech Herzfeld makes when accepting an Excellence in Theater Education Award at the ceremony: “We all have a common energy. We all want the same thing, we cannot deny it. To be heard, to hit our mark, to tell our truth, to make a difference.”