OV produces another ‘Beauty’

BRANDON — The backstage at Otter Valley Union High School was abuzz with activity Monday night as more than 40 students and adults prepared for the first full dress rehearsal of the school musical, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
The cafeteria had become one large dressing room and was a whirlwind of activity as scores of kids donned make-up, wigs and costumes. Hair was teased, corsets were tightened and hair spray wafted about in abundance.
In the auditorium, the pit orchestra, comprised of both students and adult professional musicians, tuned up and played through the overture. Crewmembers darted about in the wings, checking scenery and props. And through it all, OV theater director Jeff Hull calmly answered questions and adjusted costumes, while musical director Pat Roberts cracked jokes with the band.
“I have never had directors so cool on the eve of the first dress as Pat and Jeff,” said professional horn player Kenny Cifone. “They’re amazing.”
Hull and Roberts have been pulling off one impressive show after another at OV for the last decade, and this year’s “Beauty and the Beast” may be their most ambitious musical to date. But what makes theater at OV so fulfilling is the communal aspect, the coming together of students, teachers and community members and the countless hours spent putting together a few nights of great theater for area residents.
When Hull first arrived at OV in 1998 from Missouri, he asked how many students he could expect to audition for the show.
“I was told about 10,” he said. “Now, I get about 60 kids auditioning for the one acts, and about 30 to 40 for the musical.”
“Beauty and the Beast” features a cast of 45, including six teachers, and Hull said while the show is complex to stage, he feels all of OV’s shows have been ambitious for different reasons. One constant, however, is the talent.
“I have great actors and really strong singers, so it just comes together,” he said. “They know how to do that.”
Many of the students start out under Hull’s tutelage as 7th- and 8th-graders and rise up through the ranks.
“During the first years, I have to teach them how to act,” he said. “They get that as underclassman, so by the time they’re seniors, they have it.”
Hull never seems to lose his enthusiasm, and that enthusiasm carries over to the kids.
“I just had a senior tell me, ‘This is the only place where I ever felt accepted and could be myself,’” he said. “The kids can be who they are without worries. It’s a very accepting group.”
Hull said he tries to find a place for every student that comes out for the show, because he knows if they don’t stick with theater, they may not have a niche anywhere. Not every student is able to play sports or rest on their academic laurels.
“We make it work so that everyone has a place,” he said. “A lot of kids, if they weren’t in theater, I don’t know where they’d be.”
And they aren’t all going to be stars of the stage when they leave OV like Jake Lacey, a 2004 graduate who just got his first big break this fall on the ABC sitcom “Better with You.”
“I don’t expect them to all go out and be actors,” Hull said. “I want them to enjoy it. It’s not about the future, it’s about now.”
Music teacher and band leader Roberts didn’t have much musical directing experience when he came to OV two years after Hull, but he says the two have made a good team. Roberts, who came to Vermont via Montana in 2000, said the students are key.
“Kids are attracted to quality programs,” he said. “I think the students at OV are very special. They are very artistically aware and just wonderful people. There is a level of sophistication I have not seen elsewhere, and it allows us to raise the bar.”
Roberts said in an era where schools are cutting art, music and theater programs, more people should read the research available on the positive effects the arts can have on students.
“Kids need the arts,” he said passionately. “Music study positively affects brain development. It’s powerful stuff.”
Roberts credits Hull with the foresight to improve OV’s performance space for the students, adding a better sound system, improved lighting, new curtains, and other backstage improvements. Almost all of the improvements were paid for through fund-raising.
The OV productions began as all-student presentations, but over the years, members of the wider community have become important players, on stage and off.
“We’re always fearful of budget cuts in the arts, and I think that our community and our school value the arts in such a way that they would not let them be cut altogether,” Roberts said.
Almost 90 percent of the total budget for the musical is paid for from ticket sales, Hull said. And its support he can literally bank on.
As the rehearsals wind down and the team prepares to raise the curtain on this year’s musical offering Thursday night, their dedication is palpable. Roberts credits the kids.
“I am over-the-top proud of the students and they knock my socks off time and time again,” he said earnestly. “It’s a privilege to work with them.”
“Beauty and the Beast” will open Thursday, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m., and runs through Sunday, Nov. 21.

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