By Annette Hinkle
It’s not quite their reality yet – but this weekend in presenting the middle school musical, Pierson 6th through 8th graders will explore something that is still uncharted territory for them — high school.
That’s right, it’s “High School Musical” as presented by Pierson middle schoolers and if truth be told, the selection of this play was actually the result of compromise. Director Paula Brannon was leaning toward “Beauty and the Beast,” while producer (and middle school teacher) Melissa Luppi, who handles costuming, wanted “The Little Mermaid” if only for the simple fact that she did not want to get involved in outfitting the dinner ware.
“I said I’d even do ‘High School Musical’ before ‘Beauty and the Beast’” notes Luppi. “It’s better than having to make 20 dancing plate costumes.”
And that’s how “High School Musical” was chosen, and while it may have been a default decision, Brannon now admits that it’s all coming together quite nicely.
“We had never done this one. But you know what? They’re going to have a really cute show,” says Brannon.
Unlike most of the musicals that have been tackled by the middle schoolers in the past, this one was never actually on Broadway. “High School Musical” was in fact a Disney movie that centers on auditions for just that. The storyline follows a new girl on campus who vies for the lead role against the school’s not so nice diva. Along the way, she runs into a boy she met at a party, a jock who actually has an interest in theater, and he joins the new girl by trying out for the male lead.
If the plot sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
“I watched the movie and thought, ‘This is ‘Grease,’” says Brannon of the musical the middle schoolers presented just last year. “It was never my intention to do ‘Grease’ one year and something like it next year.”
But because “High School Musical” ultimately breaks down stereotypes while remaining age appropriate, Brannon was soon won over.
“It’s more contemporary,” says Luppi. “They have cell phones and there’s not really bad kids, there are just different cliques. They don’t fight but just sort of stick with themselves until the rebels in the group admit what else they do. The skater dude plays the cello, one of the jocks likes to cook and make crème brulee.”
“In the end, they’re all sort of expressing themselves,” she adds.
“That’s what’s corrected in this one,” says Brannon, addressing the fact that in “Grease” the characters never really overcome their stereotypes. “There was a little walking on eggshells with this group because I had to teach them to do stereotypes on stage. You have to have them at that starting place to get them to that acceptance in the end. In the costume design, I’ve reinforced that each clique had a different color, so for example, all the thespians are in purple. And in the end, it’s a rainbow.”
If there is a “mean girl” to be found in the script, it would be the diva Sharpay Evans (played by eight grader Alyssa Kneeland) whose side kick is her brother, Ryan (played by fellow eighth grader Myles Stokowski).
Kneeland, who’s been acting since third grade, was in “Grease” last year and finds this play strikes a more familiar chord personally.
“This one is a lot more modern,” she says. “I can relate to it with everyone influencing your opinions and getting into different stuff.”
“My character is a very difficult person and my mom said I’m exactly like the character,” adds Kneeland. “I take it as a compliment. I love the part. Every show’s got to have that mean person. I think it brings a lot of depth to this show.”
For Stokowski, who has already cut his teeth in Equity productions at Bay Street Theatre (“To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Men’s Lives”) putting his stage sister in her place at the end of “High School Musical” is a highlight.
“I show that I have a little niceness left in the end,” says Stokowski. “I have a brave moment when I go against my sister. “I think deep down I’m not the meanest guy. I’m just under the shadow of my sister.”
Eighth grader Calista Cafiero plays Gabriella Montez, Sharpay’s nemesis. Gabriella is the new girl who is not only a braniac, but a talented singer as well and she teams up with jock Troy Bolton (played by eighth grader Alex Kamper) in a duet during auditions for the musical.
The theater is Cafiero’s first love, and she is enjoying her part as a lead this year, particularly because she feels comfortable with her character.
“This is my first lead role, where I get my own songs,” she says. “It’s fun to experience the nice dresses and the pretty songs. I used to play sports. But I love acting and singing, so it’s my number one thing now.”
For his part, this is the first time Kamper has taken on a lead role in a play. But he hardly seems intimidated. Like his character, Troy, he is involved in sports but ready to take on the stage as well.
“I love it, it was a lot of work, but there were people to help me,” he says. “I had never sang before, but as I learned I got more comfortable with it. I think I’ll stick with it.”
While bringing the leads up to speed with their performances is one challenge for Brannon, there is another, secondary hurdle that must be cleared. And that’s keeping some 40 sixth graders (who make up the bulk of the cast) focused and moving in their more minor roles.
That task is falling to Bethany Dellapolla, a graduate of SUNY New Paltz’s theater program and a frequent face on East End stages who is doing choreography for the show. It’s the first time she’s worked on a Pierson production and perhaps her biggest accomplishment is getting the students, many of them on stage for the first time, actively engaged in the key musical numbers.
“When I came into this, I wanted to give them challenging stuff,” says Dellapolla. “I gave them little stunts and things they wouldn’t normally do. In the big finale, they were thinking it would be pretty simple stuff and I gave them a hip hop dance. They said, ‘oh it’s so cool.’ That was the biggest compliment and got them excited.”
“I’m very happy with teaching kids this stuff. It’s rewarding and I live for the moments when they get it, when they have the ‘aha,’ look,” says Dellapolla.
“They’re all doing really well,” adds Brannon. “It’s a good talented group and they’re having fun with it. At first a little hard. But that’s the fun part — doing what you’ve never done before.”
“High School Musical” will be presented by the students of Pierson Middle School Thursday through Sunday, January 31 to February 3, 2013 in the auditorium. Shows are at 7 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and a matinee will be offered on Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $7 and available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. A limited number of tickets will be sold at the door 30 minutes prior to curtain.