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Tragedy plus art equals catharsis in the documentary 'Midsummer in Newtown'

A group of suburban kids put on a pop-musical version of a Shakespeare comedy — hardly the stuff of stop-the-presses headlines, even when the show’s director and composer are Broadway vets. What sets apart the 2014 production “A Rockin’ Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the ghastly fact that many of its cast members were students at Sandy Hook Elementary School when, a year and a half earlier, a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six staff members.

Following the theatrical venture from auditions to opening night — and a few crucial, heart-wrenching steps beyond curtain call — Lloyd Kramer’s documentary takes a straightforward, conventional approach. The talking-head commentary, however firsthand, personal and eloquent, can be repetitious, while the filmmaker leaves unnecessary basic information gaps in the story he’s telling. But “Midsummer in Newtown” is nonetheless an affecting chronicle, a snapshot of a town’s collective PTSD and a shining testament to the transformative power of the arts.

Kramer dispenses with the bare facts of the Dec. 14, 2012 mass shooting in two on-screen sentences, potently unadorned. The shooter’s name goes unspoken, with the sole exception of the extraordinary expressions of compassion by Nelba Márquez-Greene, who lost her 6-year-old daughter in the attack. An initiative she launched is designed to provide emotional and therapeutic support to kids who might otherwise slip through the cracks the way Adam Lanza catastrophically did.

“Newtown,” a documentary released last year, offered a far more complex and broader-based group portrait of the town’s shock and brokenness, but within the new film’s smaller universe the grief is just as unfathomable. Kramer’s interview subjects share their memories of the day: parents’ torturous wait for news of their children; music teacher Maryrose Kristopik’s brave face as she huddled with her students in a locked closet. The two young performers at the center of the film speak briefly of their experiences, their words plain and clearly circling an unspoken darkness. But first and foremost here, the play’s the thing.

It’s gratifying under any circumstances to see shy kids blossom in performance. But for 9-year-old Tain Gregory and 11-year-old Samantha “Sammy” Vertucci, both of whom lost close friends in the shooting and had become withdrawn, their thespian breakthroughs have an especially poignant significance.

Under the inspired and never-condescending guidance of stage director Michael Unger and composer Eric Svejcar, they dive into their roles, joining a cast that ranges from kindergartners to collegians, as well as adult pros from the New York theater scene. Unger is a delight to watch; in well-chosen rehearsal excerpts, his methods are as captivating as they are productive.

There’s a frustrating lack of information, though, about the organization behind the show, the nonprofit NewArts. By skipping over key background details, the film suggests that “A Rockin’ Midsummer’s Eve” was NewArts’ inaugural production, which it wasn’t; formed as a creative outlet for a traumatized community, the group staged its first musical in 2013. Kramer presents a micro-interview with its founder, Newtown resident Michael Baroody, but gives no details about its funding. In an age of ever-threatened and dwindling public school arts programs, a few details could have been enlightening and encouraging. So too a few words about NewArts’ continued programs and expansion.

But as a depiction of the collaborative imagination and its salutary effect on two Sandy Hook students, the documentary reflects the love and exuberance of everyone involved. Beyond the show, and deepening the portrait of Newtown’s resilience, is the work of Márquez-Greene and her husband, jazz musician Jimmy Greene, in tribute to their daughter.

Yet Kramer wisely avoids any neatly ribbon-tied sense of triumph. Instead, in the film’s most profound moments, he arrives at a tender catharsis as Sammy and Tain separately grapple with a newfound emptiness — the one that greets them after the production closes. In ways that they couldn’t have managed during the preceding year and a half, they mourn.

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‘Midsummer in Newtown’ 

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes 

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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