MaryKate Dennis seems to float in midair, her legs parallel to the edge of the High School stage floor.
It’s a scene MaryKate has practiced countless times with castmates Kelsey Dineff and Caden Taylor in preparation for Deer Lakes Middle School’s musical, Oliver Jr. Based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, the classic musical follows young Oliver's journey from Victorian workhouses to life amongst London pickpockets.
In two words on how it’s going to feel in the moments before 7 p.m. Thursday when the curtain parts for Opening Night, MaryKate channeled what many have felt before performing in front of a live audience:
She cracks a smile.
“And then it’s just going to be super easy and exciting the rest of the way because everyone involved in the show is wonderful.”
That seems to be a reoccurring theme when talking with the 60-student cast of Oliver Jr., which will be shown at 7 p.m. Feb. 1 and Feb. 2 and lastly at 1 p.m. Feb 3 in the high school auditorium. Tickets are $10 at the door.
There will be plenty of principles new to lead roles when the show opens. MaryKate, who will play Oliver, had one line in last year’s production of Peter Pan Jr. She now has 57 lines.
“It’s going to be another great experience for everyone,” Katrina Beiber, who will play the Artful Dodger, said. “It’s the bonding in the cast that makes it a fun experience for us, and I think everyone who sees the show will enjoy it just as much as we do.”
“The cast is like a family,” MaryKate added. “We are conjoined into one and always really supportive.”
That support will go a long way with plenty of castmates making their mark in principal roles for the first time. Adam Duffy is gang leader Fagin, and Dale Podnar is the evil Bill Sikes. Julia Griffin is his doomed girlfriend Nancy, and Hailey Soxman is Nancy's sidekick Bet. Caden Taylor is Mr. Bumble.
“When you have more lines and you’re practicing outside of rehearsals it’s definitely a challenge not having others with you to play off of their dialogue,” Katrina said.
“It’s also challenging getting into a character that you don’t easily connect with,” Kelsey Dineff, who will play Widow Corney, added. “I have to be mean and greedy, which I really wouldn’t consider myself, but you have to find ways to embody your character.”
Lead performers have also embraced taking on mentor roles.
“You have to make sure everyone is confident in what they are doing,” MaryKate said. “You don’t want the younger cast to replicate and follow what you’re doing. You need to be positive and encourage them to be comfortable in their character and their reactions.”
“Everyone needs a reminder sometimes that it’s OK to be where you are now and that we all have room to improve,” Kelsey added. “We are all on the same stage and learning and growing together as a family.”
Co-sponsors Mr. Derby and Ms. Earls selected Oliver Jr.
They have directed shows together for several years.
“We’re lucky to have amazing directors back again,” Katrina said. “You need directors who believe in you and who remind you, you can always improve. They also make it a fun experience.”
When the show was first announced, hardly any students had ever heard of it.
Many went home to look up information on their characters – others asked their parents what it was. Mr. Derby and Ms. Earls then hosted a movie showing of it on the eve of Thanksgiving to introduce students to their characters.
“It’s really cool that we got to go into a show not knowing anything about it,” Kelsey said. “I think we almost all had a complete blank slate, and I think a lot of the audience will have a complete blank slate, too.”
And when the show ends, they hope the audience will feel the same way they do about their production of Oliver Jr.
“Most people don’t get to see what the show is like when we are first piecing it together,” Katrina said. “For all of us who have been there from the beginning, it’s amazing to see the finished product, and we know everyone who watches it will be amazed, too.”
A special thank you to the following high school students volunteering their time to the production of the show:
Choreographers are Kiersten Beiber, Ella Bienick, Natalie Brockway, Shayne Parks and Anna Ritz. Crew leaders are Kayla Almada (stage manager), Kirra Pierce (lighting designer), Ella Bieniek and Kiersten Beiber (spotlight) Carlee Majernik (sound), Willow Racan (costumes), Marianna Vergerio (makeup) and Bri Sharo (properties).