Shrek Jr. comes to Carlisle as part of a long time tradition at CPS

by Karina Coombs

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Rehearsing are (back row, from left) Corrinne Herr, Noah Lowinger; Middle row: Skylar Smith, Lily Kuivinen, Elia Blencowe, Cameron Amouzgar, Madi Gambino; Front row: Michel Downing, Elisabeth Scoffield, and Ava Dominguez.
(Photo by Genevieve de Manio)

For 38 years, Carlisle School (CPS) 7th graders and parent volunteers have brought a taste of Broadway to Carlisle, pulling off such musical productions as Fiddler on the Roof, Grease, Into the Woods and Music Man Jr. and often with little or no prior theater experience. Next week they will do it again.

On Thursday, March 16, 48 members of the class of 2018 will take the stage for the first of three performances of Shrek The Musical Jr., with another ten students working on the crew. The show is based on the 2001 award winning DreamWorks Animation movie and 2008 Broadway musical—both based on William Steig’s 1990 book, Shrek! The play is directed by Linda St. Francis, with CPS Choral Director Tara Callahan serving as Musical Director and Kendra Thyne as Choreographer. 

Shrek The Musical Jr.

Set in a number of locations, including a swamp infested by beloved fairy tale characters, the show tells the story of an ogre who, along with his “wisecracking” donkey, sets out to rescue a princess and reclaim his solitude. Along the way, he finds friendship, love and a place in the world, with the show featuring a number of powerful songs celebrating diversity and acceptance of the things that make us different —a good reminder for both cast and audience.

“Shrek Jr. is fairly new to student theater,” says St. Francis. And with a cast featuring few human characters, she adds that it is also an extremely challenging show to put on. While there are 48 students on stage, there are 70 costumes, which means a number of students play more than one character and change costume during the show—sometimes more than once.

“For some of these kids, this is the only exposure they’ve had to theater,” says St. Francis as she watches a group of parents erect scaffolding on the Corey Auditorium stage, marking the beginning of tech week as sets are installed and sound equipment goes online. In the back of the theater, Carlisle’s Walter Hickman is setting up the soundboard for the show, surrounded by boxes, color coded cables and other high tech equipment. Hickman has volunteered his services for the past eight years, setting up the system and training the students and supervising parents who run it during the actual shows.

Tradition, tradition! Tradition

You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown was the first 7th grade musical put on at CPS in 1979, according to Nancy Shohet West, Carlisle native and member of the CPS Class of 1980. “When I was in 7th grade, the school hired a new music teacher for just 7th and 8th grades with a background in musical theater,” she writes. Music class soon morphed into theatre class and the classes put on two shows that year. The following year, only the 7th grade play would continue where it would remain as part of the curriculum for a number of years until it was moved to an extracurricular activity.  

With a background as both a player and producer with the Savoyard Light Opera Company, St. Francis has directed a number of 7th grade shows over the years and is as passionate about musical theater as she is about keeping the 7th grade play part of the middle school experience. She would even like to see the school with a drama club and the ability to put on a second show. “There is a place for you in this show,” she tells the kids, explaining that for those students who have not yet found a “home” in sports or other activities, the several months long production provides them an opportunity to experience drama club for the first time in a school setting and find “their people.” 

In addition to the kids singing, dancing and acting on stage, having kids working as much of the show as possible (with some parental supervision) is another goal of St. Francis’s, whether it is managing the lights or soundboard, working with sets and scenery or helping backstage the night of the show. “[The kids] build this show as a class,” she says of the experience. Nearly 60 students out of a class of 74 are participating in some capacity in the show.

West can attest to the play serving to bond the class. “A couple of months ago, there was a Facebook thread started by one of my CPS classmates where everyone started chiming in by posting random lines from our 8th grade play,” she adds. “Bear in mind this play happened 37 years ago.”

The Producers

 

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Local builder and parent volunteer Chris Fielding finishes up the scaffolding that will be used to install set materials as Linda St. Francis and parent Alan Blevins look on. In the background, additioal parent volunteers Joe Berry and Tim Downing work on a platform.
(Photo by Karina Coombs)

While opening night is just a week away, four 7th grade parents have been working behind the scenes for nearly nine months as producers. Carren Panico, Cynara Wu, Monica Granfield and Linda Tonies volunteered to take on the CEO-type role last spring, hiring St. Francis, Callahan and Thyne in their respective roles. The producers and St. Francis began play selection over the summer, eventually securing the rights to Shrek The Musical Jr. because of the large number of roles and ensembles. The show is produced with proceeds from the Spaghetti Supper, and any profit from ticket sales will go toward funding 8th grade activities.

Once the show was selected, the producers then reached out to the Class of 2018 families to secure volunteers for accounting, backstage, flowers, front of house, lights, make-up, photography, publicity, cast party, rehearsal assistants, sound, set tear down and play T-shirts. Representatives from the sixth grade organize the refreshments at intermission. In addition to producing, Tonies also took on the role of Costume Chair and is in charge of the show’s dozens of costumes, pulled from CPS’s collection, borrowed from The Fenn School or Newton Country Day school, or made by Tonies herself, including the show’s dragon costume. Set design and construction also went to parent volunteers. “We are very lucky to have a couple of builders and they took on making sets,” says Panico.

Auditions and callbacks for the show were held in mid-December with St. Francis, Callahan and Thyne, and rehearsals began after winter break. “It’s a big commitment [for students],” says Wu with students meeting weekly Monday through Thursday from 3:15 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. depending on the scene being rehearsed. Producers also attend rehearsal since part of their role involves working stage right or left during the actual performances. “We need to be really familiar with the play [so] so we know it when we have to step up,” explains Panico. With the show just around the corner all students are now rehearsing.

“This is one of the last opportunities that parents can participate in something so close with their children,” says Panico about the time and energy spent on the production. “It is remarkable to be at a rehearsal and see how much they learn even from the beginning to the end of a rehearsal and watch them grow.” “You also see different sides of kids and that’s really nice,” adds Wu. “It’s nice to see different sides of other people’s children.”

A Little Night Music

Shrek The Musical Jr. will begin its three-day run at CPS in the Corey Auditorium with a 4 p.m. show on Thursday, March 16, followed by a 7 p.m. show on both Friday, March 17 and Saturday, March 18. 

Tickets are $10 and may be purchased at the Transfer Station on March 11 between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., in the CPS lobby between 2:45 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on March 13, 14 and 15 or at Ferns Country Store. Unless a particular performance is sold out, tickets may also be purchased the night of each show. Light refreshments will be available for purchase during intermission, as well as flowers and a limited number of Shrek The Musical Jr. T-shirts.   ∆

Editor’s Note: The writer would like to thank Nancy Shohet West—who recently declared herself a “walking archive of Carlisle cultural history”—for detailing yet another middle school experience for the Mosquito.