Breaking into song: Musical season commences at area high schools

From overcoming choreography and scheduling challenges to the chance of learning leadership and making friends, taking part in a high school musical is a character-shaping time for some students.

“Every year, I go into our productions hoping that students will learn what it is like to be in a production and everything that entails – from leadership, stage presence, lighting, etc.,” said Marina Johnson, Altoona Area High School drama teacher. “It is so important for my students to use the arts as a way to express themselves – this show is definite proof of that.”

That show is “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which is one of several area high school musicals that are either taking to the stage over the next couple months or have already taken a final bow as part of the 2012-13 musical season.

Altoona Community Theatre Operations Manager Steven C. Helsel said, “We’re seeing a lot of the standards that have been making the circuit of all the schools in the past few years – ‘Godspell,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘Grease,’ ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Cambria Heights, in December, was the first school in the area, I think, to undertake ‘Sweeney Todd: School Edition,’ which is certainly one of the more challenging titles. Altoona Area is the first around here to be staging ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie,’ I believe, and ‘The Wedding Singer,’ which Bishop Carroll is producing, is one we haven’t seen at the schools before now.”

In May, some area students will attend the Isaac Awards, “an educational outreach program ACT initiated eight years ago to provide special recognition to area schools where sports often are given center stage instead of the arts,” an ACT press release said.

Judges from ACT attend and evaluate the musicals and, in May, announce nominee in categories like Best Production, Best Musical Number, Best Actor and Actress, the release said.

The awards – open to schools in Blair, Bedford, Cambria and and Centre counties – focuses on student involvement. Schools perform musical numbers during the ceremony.

“If there’s one thing our judges have discovered, the talent pool from school to school is amazing, and their level of performance is surprisingly equal, regardless of school size, location or budgetary considerations,” Helsel said.

Putting on one of the standards is Tyrone Area High School with its production of “Grease” on April 5 and 6.

“I chose ‘Grease’ because of the ensemble cast,” producer and music director Brittany Hipp said.

“Instead of one or two roles that dominate the show, there are tons of important, interesting, dynamic characters. It gives more students a chance to have leads. No one character has the majority of the scenes or the majority of the musical numbers. We have such a strong, talented group this year, and I wanted to showcase more than just a few. We really had the right students to do this show, and it resulted in a very strong cast.”

This is the sixth musical Karen Volpe has directed for Tyrone Area High School.

“I always love working with these talented, dedicated young people,” Volpe said. “The cast of ‘Grease’ is particularly strong, and it is such a joy to watch them develop their talent. We are well ahead of the game, and I am excited for them, because it’s going to be a great show.”

Scheduling is the challenge in a high school setting, Hipp said.

“It’s tough to schedule rehearsals around other activities, both in and out of school,” she said. “But these kids are so dedicated; they make it work.”

Hollidaysburg Area Repertory Players went to work with their production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” in November.

Hollidaysburg Area Senior High orchestra director Stephanie Everett said the show called for a large cast, allowing for several spotlight roles.

“It’s a really cute show. It’s funny. It’s a comedy, lighthearted,” Everett said. “We wanted to give as many kids as we could an opportunity to shine.”

The biggest challenge was with the choreography, she said. The production had several dance numbers in it. Choreographer Alysia Watt was “fantastic,” Everett said.

Junior Eli Wood, 16, who has been acting since second grade, played lead character J. Pierpont Finch.

Through acting he has developed friendships, and become better at speaking in public, he said. He counts the musical as one of his favorites he’s done, calling it “fun,” “upbeat,” and “witty.”

Aislinn Feathers will play the title character Millie Dillmount in Altoona’s production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

“Millie is such a fun and challenging role to play,” she said. “I have been dancing since a young age, so I was really interested in playing such a tap-heavy character. So far, I have learned how to better develop my character and grow as an actor. I am really excited for opening night and can’t wait to perform with such an amazing cast.”

Johnson had several reasons for choosing the show, she said.

“One, it hasn’t been done by a local high school in many years,” she said. “Secondly, it presents interesting and creative challenges for us. It is a huge tap-dancing musical and is a classic show, both of which are things I wanted to expose my students to.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.