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Draper Journal

Familiar musical to be presented as stage reading in DPMS auditorium

Apr 15, 2021 09:22AM ● By Julie Slama

In an effort to make it COVID-safe, Draper Park Middle students will present “High School Musical, Jr.” as a stage reading in late April. (Photo courtesy Erica Heiner)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

There are the thespians, the brainiacs, the jocks, the cheerleaders and all the cliques of high school—and all are on stage at once in “High School Musical, Jr.” 

The musical production will be at 7 p.m., Wednesday, April 28 through May 1 at the school’s auditorium, 13133 S. 1300 East. Following COVID-19 health and safety protocols, masks are required for both actors and patrons and the audience members will need to purchase tickets in advance to maintain social distancing at a 25% seating capacity. Tickets—$5 for adults and $3 for children—will be available on the school’s website:

“We are getting creative in light of the pandemic,” director Erica Heiner said. “We’re producing it as a stage reading so everyone in the cast will be on the stage the entire time.”

She said that also will reduce any chance of students crowding backstage and helps with contact tracing, but it also presents them a different kind of theatrical experience.

“They’ll stay where they are, sitting in seats, maybe watching the basketball game or the science decathlon, but when it breaks to their part, they will perform right where they’ve been,” Heiner said, adding that layered clothing will help depict their characters on stage.

To allow everyone on stage, the leading roles were double cast and cast member numbers were limited, instead of allowing the typical 100-plus students to all perform.

“It breaks my heart to turn away students, but in light of safety with the pandemic, this makes sense,” Heiner said.

Last year, Draper Park Middle performed opening night of “Xanadu, Jr.” before the curtain closed with the pandemic.

“Only one cast got to perform. It took a toll on me. It took a toll on them,” Heiner said.

Auditions were pushed back this school year until late January, both because Heiner was on maternity leave and the school shut down several times with a high rate of positive COVID-19 cases or students and teachers were placed on quarantine, she said. Even so, call backs were done virtually.

“We were able to do it, but seeing the chemistry between students doesn’t work as well on Google Meet,” Heiner said. “I took whoever was best for the part for the roles.”

For the roles of Troy Bolton are eighth-grader Christian Holyfield and sixth-grader Finn McDowell; Gabriella Montez will be played by eighth-grader Addi Rich and seventh-grader Sophie Owen-Whetman; the role of Sharpay Evans will be sixth-grader Maisy Stevens and seventh-grader Lily Farr; and her brother, Ryan Evans, will be eighth-grader Beck Thompson and sixth-grader William Petersen. The role of Ms. Darbus will be performed by seventh-grader Samantha Olsen and sixth-grader Paisley Draper.

Sixth-grader Layla Valadex will play the role of Taylor McKessie, a brainiac and Gabriella’s best friend, in one of the casts. Layla has performed on stage since the age of 5, including the lead role of Ariel in “The Little Mermaid, Jr.” However, this is her first role outside Studio Kids productions.

“I am actually excited I got the role,” she said after her audition where she sang 16 bars of a song and performed a monologue. “I like how assertive Taylor is in the show. She knows what she wants and works for it.”

Layla said to prepare for the audition, she watched the musical.

“I actually watched it three times before the audition,” she said, adding that since then, she then has watched it twice, studying her role. 

When two-hour rehearsals three times per week began in early February, Layla, like other cast members, used the Canvas platform to access music tracks and videos to watch and practice at home. Layla also recalled what she learned in her fall theater class.

“Mrs. Heiner really helped me with my acting skills. We did pantomime where we learned how to use our body more to explain things we were feeling or wanting to say,” she said. “Now, I’m learning vocal bars from parents and learning some cool, quick dance moves from Mrs. Heiner.”

Heiner has appreciated parent volunteers helping with music and choreography.

“They just jump in and ask, ‘What do you need?’ she said.

When Heiner began teaching at the school, she wanted to expand the scope of theatrical experience to her students and offered “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Xanadu, Jr.” Previously, she said directors had students perform a lot of Disney musicals.

This year, her direction was different.

“I wanted to find a show that is familiar to them rather than introduce something new. ‘High School Musical, Jr.’ resonates with them and during the pandemic, it’s important that they find something or somewhere they belong, which also rings true in the show,” she said. “I feel like the arts have been thought of as underrated. But during the pandemic, I think we all can see how important the arts are—whether it’s reading a book, painting, or performing or even watching a performance. It’s a vital part of our world.”