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02/21/2017 11:30 AM

Students Hope to Share Messages of Hope, Leadership, and Family with ‘Aida’

The cast of the 2017 spring musical production of Aida rehearses the number “My Strongest Suit” with Jen Roberts center stage as Amneris. The song, though on the surface about a princess’s love of fashion displays the depth of the characters portrayed in the show, and deals with a sense of insecurity. The performers hope audience members will be able to connect with that message.Photo by Michelle Anjirbag/The Courier

The cast and crew of Valley Regional High School (VRHS) spring musical are proving that “Fortune Favors the Brave” with their production of Aida. Originally an opera by Verdi, the VRHS production is based on the 2000 musical by Tim Rice and Elton John, produced by Walt Disney Theatrical, with a little bit of a twist.

“This has always been a bucket-list show for me, but one I wasn’t sure we’d be able to do,” said Director Ingrid Walsh, who has been working with VRHS’s musical productions since 1998.

Coming to the VRHS stage from Friday through Sunday, March 10 to 12, Aida will be Walsh’s 20th show with the group.

“But I wasn’t sure we’d be able to do it because of the nature of the story. I started looking at the way other high schools had handled the musical, and shifted the focus from a conflict based on ethnicity to one based in nationality, a story of a conquered nation. We want to be able to do a more serious show, but still make sure that it is accessible to everyone.”

Aida is a departure from the shows chosen the last couple years, The Addams Family and Band Geeks, which were more up-tempo, lighthearted productions. Walsh attributes the shift in mood to this year’s seniors who wanted to do a more emotionally rooted show, based on the experiences many of them had as freshmen working on that year’s production of The Secret Garden.

“The students raise the bar and set the standards high,” said Walsh. “They wanted something deep and heavy, and it was time.”

The standard set by the approximately 100 students who work across the cast, crew, and pit orchestra is noted by all of the adults who work with the production.

“It’s the most professional group of students I’ve ever worked with,” said Tessa Grunwald, assistant choreographer for the show. “They have a lot of pride.”

“It’s amazing to see them all grow up,” said musical director Laura Travers, who also teaches music at John Winthrop Middle School. “They become such mature, expressive kids. I’ve always loved Aida; it’s a really serious story with a lot of emotional pieces. The music is hard, as it is a lot of pop-rock, but they rise to the occasion.”

It’s not only the students seen on stage who work hard. Though this year’s crew and pit are slightly smaller than in the past, they remain dedicated to putting on the best show possible. Maleena Frazier, Cameron Johnson, and Claudia Dalterio are seniors in the crew who said they appreciate not only the work done by the cast and crew, but the sense of family they gain throughout the whole process. The crew handles a wide range of responsibilities, including building the sets; handling lights, sound, props, and computer projections; and turning actor’s mics on and off at the right time.

“The musical is such a close-knit group, even though for us it doesn’t come together until three to four weeks out from the show,” said Frazier.

While the cast rehearses, members of the crew are busy working on the technical aspects of the production, perfecting and recording the light, sound, and curtain cues and making sure that props and actors are where they are meant to be.

“Without the crew, there would be no show,” said Johnson. “It would just be a blank stage with people on it, but you wouldn’t be able to see or hear anything. We help make the show happen.”

The show is a commitment from all members. Auditions happen in November and students rehearse after school on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Friday. Three weeks out from the performances, the cast and crew rehearse after school on every weekday for three hours, and have the occasional six-hour Saturday rehearsal.

“There is a lot of commitment from the community to the larger theater programs,” said Walsh about why she thinks the theater program is so strong. “The staffing is consistent and there are many people working toward the same goal. We have tremendous administrative support, and a lot of pride in the program.

“We grow when we know there is a positive environment,” Walsh continued. “With the Goodspeed and the Ivoryton Playhouse in the area, there is a lot done to foster the arts and the community expects it.

“The kids come from all different walks—they are athletes, academics, musicians, they’re on debate team—but we always say that this is the biggest team at Valley,” said Walsh. “We come together and build something in a safe space. And at the end of it, they might not all be best friends, but they forge different connections across the school community and there’s a real sense of family among them.”

“It’s always a lot of fun. Even if you’re not on stage, you get to spend time with these people,” said sophomore cast member Jon Leffingwell. “I like everything, just being here.”

Senior Nathan Russo plays Mereb, and has been part of VRHS’s musical productions since he was a freshman. He hopes to study musical theater next year, and one day perform professionally.

“I think what we all learn is how to work together as a team, and work together for the greater good,” said Russo. “Everyone is so mature and professional, but so nice. We connect with each other and it shows on the stage.

“It’s a fun musical, but it’s definitely more serious,” he continued. “I like my character. He’s the kind of character who knows everything suddenly, and is really dedicated to his people and his country.”

“Being part of the musical means that you really see the work that is needed to make it worth watching,” said senior castmember Madison Estelle,a four-year cast member. “My freshman year, everyone was really nice and encouraging. It makes you feel important, that there is always something to do and that you’re responsible for the production.”

“You learn that you’re able to build a family if you have the same mindset or goals,” said senior cast member Nayara Alvarado. “There is a lot of girl power in this musical. You see that the girl characters, like Amneris, don’t need someone to be comfortable, she goes places alone. She might be a princess, but she’s a leader, too. Girls can be strong.”

“Two communities can learn to get along, even if they start from a place of hatred,” said junior cast member Maddy Evans. “When people see that two cultures can come together, they have a better awareness of that.”

“People connect with these characters and realize this can happen in real life,” added junior cast member Matt Martinez.

“I think that Aida widens cultural awareness,” said junior cast member Helen Porter. “Love stories can come true—and it’s not real, but it can give people hope. Although these characters are fictional, you see yourself in them; you see the good parts of you in the heroes and the bad parts in the villains. And all of these terrible and great things are still part of being human.”

Valley Regional High School’s production of Aida features Jen Roberts as Amneris, Maggie Walsh in the title role of Aida, Connor Riordan as Radames, Nathan Russo as Mereb, and James D’Amico as Zoser. Aida will be performed four times: at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 10; at 1 and 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 11; and at 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 12. Tickets are $12 ($10 for the Saturday matinee) and on sale while they last at Valley Regional High School, Celebrations in Deep River, Elephant Crossing in Ivoryton, Toys Ahoy! in Essex, and The Wheatmarket in Chester.

The cast of the 2017 spring musical production of Aida rehearses the number “Dance of the Robe,” a song that tells part of the story of the conquered Nubian nation. Though the pop-rock standards are challenging, the cast, according to musical director Laura Travers, is giving its all and doing them justice. Photo by Michelle Anjirbag/The Courier