By Holly Crocco
The success of the Mahopac Middle School Theater Department is a tale as old as time, with Director Heather Palkewick and Assistant Director Victoria Velders having held down the castle for more than two decades.
“Heather is a music teacher, and 22 years ago she came to me and asked if I wanted to start this with her,” said Velders, who is a social studies teacher. “We are the best marriage – she’s the talent, and I’m the bureaucrat… We divide and conquer our work. So, Heather does all the music and vocals, and I do blocking and stage acting.” Beth Palmer is the choreographer.
“One thing I like best about our program, that makes it resilient through every budget cut, is it involves kids from all different backgrounds and with different skillsets,” continued Velders.
There are about 75 to 80 students participating in this year’s production of “Beauty and the Beast Jr.,” including the cast, stage crew, set design, costume crew, lighting and sound crew, and more. “It is an all-inclusive program, for all students,” said Velders.
Auditions were held in October and November, and rehearsals began right away in the classrooms. In January, the rehearsals moved to the gymnasium, where participants started rehearsing and practicing on stage and in the environment where the show will be performed.
“Beauty and the Beast Jr.” was chosen this year because it has many lead roles to feature the many talented students in the program this year.
Eight-grader Antione Fleming was part of the stage crew during last year’s performance of “The Little Mermaid Jr.,” but this year decided to try out for an acting role. He has been cast as Gaston.
“It was always a dream of mine,” he said of singing and acting.
This is also the first time Sixth-grader Thomas Theanthong, who has been cast as the Beast, will star on stage.
“I just decided, why not?” he said of his choice to audition for one of the lead roles, saying he wasn’t too nervous. “If you work hard enough, then it becomes easy.”
Playing the lead female role of Belle is eighth-grader Izabella Wulczyn – who is also making her musical theater debut. “I just felt like doing something different this year,” she said.
Wulczyn said she was going to audition for a smaller role, such as Chip, but decided at the last minute to aim higher – a decision she doesn’t regret. “I definitely want to do this a lot more,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d make so many friends.”
Kylie Quackenbush, Gloria Nelson, Alexandra Silva and Eileen Bergerson area all eighth-graders who have been in the program all three years of middle school.
“I went to a lot of Broadway shows when I was younger, and it was inspiring,” said Quackenbush of why she decided to participate year after year.
She said her nerves are high during the audition process, but “once you’re put into a role, you know you were put there for a reason.”
Silva said she gets nervous at the start of the show, but once the first scenes get underway, excitement kicks in. “I’ve done it since kindergarten,” she said of singing and acting. “It’s a passion of mine.”
The Mahopac Middle School Theater Company will present Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast Jr.,” on Friday, March 24 at 7 p.m., and Saturday, March 25 at 2 and 7 p.m., on the middle school stage. Tickets are $7 at the door. Students must be accompanied by an adult.