Think of Brockton, and what comes to mind is a gritty industrial city, shoe factories, and Rocky Marciano. Not a hotbed of musical theater.
But Larry Sousa credits his hometown with starting him on the path to Broadway and beyond as a dancer, actor, director, choreographer, and set designer.
“I have a lifelong career in professional theater because of the opportunities I was given in the arts in the Brockton public school system,” says Sousa, 44.
He’s sitting in an office at the Huntington Avenue headquarters of Boston Children’s Theatre, where he’s directing and choreographing “Honk!” It begins performances Saturday at the Boston Center for the Arts. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Ugly Duckling,” the family musical tells the story of a young bird whose awkward appearance is a magnet for prejudice and ridicule. Brandon Barbosa, 11, of Revere, stars as Ugly, who — spoiler alert! — eventually learns he’s really a swan.
A little while later, in a drab rehearsal studio down the hall, Sousa watches intently as the cast — ranging from elementary schoolers to a couple of recent conservatory graduates — goes through a sort of line dance in which the rest of the young ducks express their disdain for Ugly. When the number ends, Sousa steps in among them, repositioning one in line, encouraging another tiny girl to use her most comic grimace, which she demonstrates with glee.
“And, Brandon, you can’t go all the way across the stage with your back to the audience,” he says, bringing a rueful smile from his young lead. “Try it like this,” he says, demonstrating a face-front move. Brandon nods, then executes it on the next run-through.
“We want them to be in an environment that is as much like a professional union regional theater as possible,” Sousa says. “My assumption whenever I work with young people is that they are going to be able to go with that flow. And they do, every time.”
That’s not the only thing he wants kids to learn from the show.
“I think as long as peer pressure and bullying are still around for young people, we need stories like ‘Honk!’ and ‘The Ugly Duckling,’ ” says Sousa. “Anytime a musical comes along that is directed at young people that shares the message you should be yourself and love yourself . . . we need to get that message out there.”
But if you suggest that a theater kid growing up in working-class Brockton must have been treated like Ugly, Sousa is quick to stand up for his hometown. He followed his sister to dance classes and recitals at the nationally known Gold School, briefly becoming a student himself, he says. And a summer youth theater program was the gateway drug that eventually got him hooked on drama.
“I think the first really serious — if you could call it that — theater that I did was, I lied my way into a company called Act One Scene 1. I think you had to be 10, and we said that I was 10, but I was 8 or something.”
“My mother was complicit,” he says with a smile.
The director of that program, Carol Thomas, also led the theater program at Brockton High School. When Sousa was a student there in the 1980s, he recalls, “We did probably eight or nine shows a season, including a huge musical and a lot of student-directed one-acts. I was given every opportunity to work in every aspect of theater at Brockton High: design, performance, behind the scenes, onstage, tech, everything.
“The drama club was a place of refuge, for sure, but it was a community that welcomed other communities,” he adds. “We would do all of these shows over the course of the year, but then when it was time for the musical, all of these football players and basketball players, guys, would come out and audition to be dancers in the musical. You come to a musical at Brockton High and you’d see 30 guys doing a kick line, and all of those guys on a pretty top-level sports team. It was just cool to do that.”
In his 20s, after Ithaca College and the University of California-Irvine, Sousa moved to New York, where he landed in the cast of Neil Simon and Marvin Hamlisch’s 1993 Broadway musical “The Goodbye Girl,” starring Bernadette Peters and Martin Short. He also choreographed and designed sets for smaller productions by his friends. After several years, he followed the well-worn path back to Los Angeles, where he got a few guest roles on sitcoms, including “3rd Rock From the Sun,” but he says he found more creative satisfaction in stage directing and choreography.
“I felt lucky to get all those TV jobs, but it never felt like my world,” Sousa says. “I was a theater creature.”
Sousa returned to New England a few years ago, in part, he says, to wait out the long gestation of the musical “MerryGoRound,” which he’s choreographing. With music by Richard M. Sherman and the late Robert B. Sherman (“Mary Poppins”), the project has for years reportedly been headed for Broadway, with Florence Henderson said to be attached. Fund-raising, Sousa says, still has a few million to go.
Meanwhile, he has directed “The Sound of Music” and “Bye Bye Birdie” for the Reagle Music Theatre, and choreographed the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” this season for director Paul Melone.
That Alex Timbers-Michael Friedman excursion into presidential history “is an emo-rock musical, and you don’t get to do that kind of choreography in a whole lot in shows,” Sousa says. “It very much came out of hip-hop and contemporary street dance and, like, mosh-pit movement, based out of what an audience might be doing at a rock concert. And then there was that little section of the show that was like a Tyra Banks runway thing that we all had a ball with.”
That show led to his next job after “Honk!,” choreographing SpeakEasy’s “In the Heights” for director Paul Daigneault, the company’s producing artistic director. The musical runs May 10-June 8 at the BCA.
“The thing I like about Larry is, he not only gets dance styles and has a wide range — ‘In the Heights’ will be hip-hop, jazz, salsa style — but he knows how to move the action forward through dance,” Daigneault says.
Maybe, he speculates, it’s because Sousa is also a director. “The action doesn’t stop so we can do a number and then start up again,” he says. “He’s really able to continue to tell the story through the movement, which is what I think makes a really great choreographer.”