Play brings people together: Mount Abe builds kids and community

BRISTOL — It’s 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night in the Mount Abraham Union High School auditorium, and rehearsal is about to begin. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas with their stratospheric budgets and their Hollywood casts of thousands would eat their hearts out!
“Seussical,” this fall’s musical, brings together close to 100 students and more than 100 adults. And judging from the wild progression of colorful costumes that flit by for fittings and the fittingly Seussally skewed set-in-progress, this year’s production also promises its full measure of dazzling spectacle.
The scene is no surprise to those familiar with the spirit that somehow magically rises out of the annual extravaganza, year after year, that has seen generations of young kids grow into accomplished and self-confident young adults.
“Music brings people together,” said musical director Jennifer Allred. “When you sing together, you have to sing as one.”
The large Mount Abe auditorium is full tilt boogie the entire night. While students rehearse onstage, a cluster of volunteer moms armed with sewing machines whirr away at costumes at a table toward the back. Upstage and to the edges, a crew works on the set, mostly painting, climbing up and down ladders, while down stage, center stage, stage left and stage right students move on and off, in groups sometimes huge, sometimes tiny, as the “Seussical” story unfolds.
Tonight’s rehearsal is a first run-through for Act 1. Although first run-throughs are often rather forgivingly referred to as “stumble-throughs,” tonight every kid in this large-cast extravaganza is stepping in time.
“Seussical” opens with a boy who finds a red-and-white striped hat — perhaps the most iconic hat in all of American literature. The boy picks up the hat, the Cat in the Hat appears and conjures up an incredible world of mayhem, adventure and imagination, and suddenly the stage is full — and I mean full to bursting — with 84 dancing, singing high school and middle school students.
“Seussical” melds plots from favorite Dr. Seuss stories like “Horton Hears a Who” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” — which intertwine and unfold like some kind of endlessly permuting zany dream sequence — and weaves in long-beloved characters like the Grinch, the Cat, Yertle the Turtle and Gertrude McFuzz.
At this stage of preparation, the students are rehearsing in their normal street clothes. Plenty of T-shirts, cords and jeans. But even though they are still dressed as themselves, in their everyday clothes, each time a bunch of kids steps on stage to rehearse you can see them begin to transform, change, become intensely focused and move out of themselves and into the world of Seuss. Kids step onstage, moving scene by scene to rehearse, and step off the stage to hang out, chat in quiet whispers with friends, perhaps to do homework and sometimes just watch the rest of the rehearsal intently.
At least one student brought her health class programmable “baby” in a full-size baby carrier, and looked singularly unfazed when it started to “cry” and she had to run offstage. She picked up the baby, bottled and rocked it, bouncing in time to the onstage beat, and jumped back into the scene in seconds flat.
TAKING ALL COMERS
This is Mount Abe’s second production of “Seussical,” said co-director Anne Gleason, who’s been directing the Bristol school’s fall musical for 24 years along with Martha Chesley. Gleason explained that it can be tough to find a show with a large enough cast that’s also family friendly. And she clearly loves this particular show with its fluid staging, wacky Seuss world, upbeat tempos and room for plenty of kids to morph from one amazingly colorful character to the next.
Mount Abe’s fall musical takes all comers. Those who want a featured acting part or a solo or duet must audition. But anyone who wants to participate can be in the chorus, no prior skills required, no audition, no questions asked. Given that most area high schools do just one musical a year (Mount Abe now does a second musical in the spring), most try to take as many kids into the fall musical as possible.
But the atmosphere at the Mount Abe fall musical is particularly welcoming and the tradition and continuity run particularly deep. It really does feel like one big, happy family. And it’s a family that keeps expanding and keeps coming back together, year to year, decade to decade. According to Gleason and Chesley, cast size alone has grown from 35 participants for the team’s first production of “Grease” in 1992 to up to 144 participants for the 1996 “Wizard of Oz.” Typically they are in the 90 to 110 cast-member range. The dedicated crew of adult volunteers is anchored in folks who’ve been helping for five, 10, 15 years or more.
The camaraderie and sense of exuberance throughout the room is part of the way that the musical keeps enriching students’ lives and keeps community members returning to be a part of something so fun, so welcoming and so positive.
Ken Labas and Steve Cobb, of Bristol and Starksboro, respectively, have been part of the set-building crew since they arrived at Mount Abe as seventh-graders. Now long graduated and almost 30 years old, both are still in construction, one at Bread Loaf, the other installing solar panels, and they love coming back to help with the show.
Allred, a Bristol piano teacher, first got involved as a way to get out of the house when her children were little and then as a way to be involved with her kids as they went through school. She’s been the fall production’s music director for 15 years, and it is her piano playing and musical expertise that drive the music forward and bring the production together.
MAUHS senior Harmony Taggart’s older sister was in the Mount Abe shows for all seven years of her high school career. As a preschooler Taggart watched her sister perform and felt like she couldn’t wait to be grown up enough to join in the show. This year, the New Haven resident is playing one of the lead roles, Gertrude McFuzz.
“I remember the first show I ever saw was ‘Oklahoma,’ and as soon as we got out of that first show I was like, ‘Dad, you’re buying me the record, you’re buying me the T-shirt, and I’m never listening to anything else besides this soundtrack,’” she said.
Taggart says that when she first arrived at Mount Abe she could barely sing above a whisper. But she stuck with it, performed in the musical every year, took voice lessons, applied herself and now that diligence has paid off. The senior is proud of what she’s accomplished, how she’s become more confident onstage and how she’s grown musically, But for Taggart perhaps the very best thing about the Mount Abe musical is getting to work with the other people.
“The musical creates a strong sense of community — and not only a community within the school but the entire community does come out and see it. So it’s kind of like this really awesome coming together of everybody I’ve known and loved since I was born,” she said. “It’s just a great culmination of everybody working together and experiencing and enjoying this wonderful moment onstage.”
BRINGING UP YOUNGSTERS
Like Taggart, newbie chorus member Griffin Paradee of Bristol saw his older siblings having fun and “wanted to have a shot at it.” He says being in the musical is really fun, and it’s helping him get more comfortable with middle school.
“I’ve met like a ton of new people, and I’m not as nervous around high schoolers as I was,” said Paradee. “I get to be with a lot of my friends. We do fun dances and fun group sing-a-longs. It’s really a fun activity because you’re with everybody.”
Eighth-grader Ethan DeWitt of Bristol loved being in plays all through grade school and is in his second year in the Mount Abe fall musical. DeWitt plays the nameless boy who, along with the Cat in the Hat, narrates and dreams up the show and who also gets brought into the story as the Who-ville mayor’s son, Jo-Jo. DeWitt’s clear voice and assured stage presence belie his younger kid status, and he’s clearly found a place to excel and to grow into himself on stage.
“This year it’s harder because I’m a lead,” said DeWitt. “I’m having fun, but I’m also getting a sense of maturity I think because it gives you the ability to be in front of a big audience and present something. Say you’re a business person and you’re doing a big presentation in front of a couple of CEOs that would be a good skill to have so you wouldn’t get nervous.”
Cat in the Hat Sam Kuhns, a junior from Monkton, has gotten so much from the experience of being in the fall musical that this year he is not only playing America’s favorite troublemaker,  but also studying theater full-time in the Addison Repertory Theater program at the Hannaford Career Center and is considering a career in the performing arts.
Students interviewed backstage spoke repeatedly about how fun it is to be in the fall musical, how it’s helped them feel more themselves and be more confident, and how many friends they’ve made — especially how it’s broadened their sphere of friends outside their usual circle.
Adults watching from the outside can also see how kids learn to persevere, to have a dream and stick with it step by step to make it come true, to come out of themselves and gain confidence, to find a community they can trust and contribute to, and to learn the value of working as a team. Adults working at Tuesday night’s rehearsal also spoke repeatedly of the joy of watching kids transform and learn that you can always change and that the kid you were yesterday or last year or at the start of this fall’s rehearsals is different from the kid you can be today.
That’s one of the things that keeps long-time costume designer Joanne Stetson of Monkton coming back.
“I just love getting to know all these kids. I just love — someone who’s really shy and can barely speak onstage and by the end they’re just out there,” she said. “We’ve helped create these wonderful performers; kids who can take that skill forward — for everything.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at gaenm@addisonindependent.com.
MOUNT ABRAHAM UNION High School junior Sam Kuhns checks his script at rehearsal last week for the school’s fall musical. Kuhns plays the Cat in the Hat in the production of “Seussical the Musical.”
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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