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Review: Up with People lifts Tulsa with song and service

Photos by James Adamski

With tours across 72 nations and 24,000 shows under their belt, the international musical educational program Up with People performed on a Tulsa stage on Sept. 7 for the first time in over 20 years.

Up with People (UWP), founded as a nonprofit in 1968 by WWII veteran J. Blanton Belk, purposed to spread joy during a decade of social and political turmoil. The musical tourist group was quickly popularized and performed at Vatican City, Carnegie Hall, the White House, four Super Bowls, six World Expos and West Berlin throughout the back half of the 20th century.

After an operations suspension in 2000, UWP reopened in 2005, spearheaded by new CEO Tommy Spaulding. 

With a revamped staff and structure, UWP seeks to “unite and inspire communities, spark others to think more broadly about their world, and forge connections among diverse cultures” through art, volunteer service, travel and community engagement, as it states on their site.

The UWP cast teaches children international dances and trivia through a culture fair at the Boys & Girls club in North Mabee.

In the 1990s, Up with People established accreditation through universities so students could earn up to 12 hours of college credit while on the world tour. The curriculum, in partnership with Florida Southern University, includes internships, online classes, workshops, discussions and seminars.  

One hundred 17 to 29 year olds from around the world are selected from online applications to join the semester or gap-year program. Tuition costs $17,450 per semester that covers housing, meals and travel during the tour. Students find sponsors, fundraise and may be awarded grants or scholarships up to $4,000 based on need, merit, effort and diversity. 

In July cast members began their four-week training at the UWP base in Denver, Colorado. They then embarked on their 15-week world tour and will spend one week in 14 different cities across two continents until Dec. 5. 

 The cast members stay with local host families, spending the week learning about the culture and volunteering at local outreach projects. At the end of the week, as a ‘thank-you’ to the city, they perform their two-hour production of Up with People: Live on Tour to inspire others to make a positive impact in their community. 

“The way we immerse ourselves in the culture [is] not from a tourist perspective, but from a community perspective,” said 19-year-old cast member Ashleigh Jaramillo, whose grandmother was part of the original cast in 1968. “We’re thankful for our host families who open their hearts, homes and fridges to us.”

UWP: Live on Tour features 21 original songs selected from their studio album “Keep Hope Alive” available on iTunes, Spotify and Amazon.

This semester’s show, “Up with People: Live on Tour” is comprised of 21 original songs “crafted to inspire people to make commitments to keeping hope alive in their communities,” as explained in the show program. The B19 cast—second tour of 2019—includes young adults from across the U.S., Kosovo, Belgium, Mexico, Australia, China, Norway, Bermuda, Switzerland, Sweden, Japan and The Netherlands.

Tulsa is their second stop of the tour, preceded by Grand Island, Nebraska on Aug 31. The performance opened at Kirkland Theatre in Broken Arrow, beginning about 30 minutes late due to technical issues. Youth from the National Cherokee Choir performed a cappella songs in the lobby as about 300 guests awaited open-doors to the high school auditorium. Guests meandered around to five booths set up representing different continents and Up with People cast members weaved through the crowds in colorful costumes to answer questions and connect with alumni in attendance.

 The show opened with an introductory video and recap of the service projects the cast participated in throughout the week, including Habitat for Humanity, ReStore and Up with Trees. A sea of performers then paraded the stage separated by red, blue and green outfits, flashing jazz hands and plastered smiles, singing the “Keep Hope Alive” theme “We will not be divided / We will rise above fear / We will stand up, united / We will move on from here.” 

The two-hour show was led by about five impressive vocalists backed by a diverse ensemble performing international dances like Korean K-pop, South African gumboot dancing and Bollywood. Heartfelt anthems about environmentalism, racism, homosexuality and education were sandwiched between spirited musical numbers, which seemingly attempted to combat heavy controversies with frivolities. 

 Although the performance itself—made up of mostly amateur performers—falls short of an impressive production, it earned my respect for the steadfast optimism and devotion to ‘keep hope alive’ through volunteer service in communities around the world. 

 After the U.S., the UWP tour will continue to Canada, Italy, Germany and Switzerland.