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Student actors and company get chance to shine in musicals

| Thursday, March 22, 2012

A love triangle, high kicks and high jinks found their way into West Allegheny High School five times this month — on stage.

West Allegheny's musical, "42nd Street," is among the dozens of shows debuting this spring at high schools throughout the suburbs.

The play joins a range of performances — from South Fayette High School's "Annie Get Your Gun" to North Hills High School's "My Fair Lady" to Gateway High School's "Carousel" — in an annual ritual that offers students fun, camaraderie and hands-on experience.

There are more unseen, but necessary jobs, in stage productions than in other extracurricular activities, educators and arts experts said.

"At the end of the production, we call it the 'company party,' not the 'cast party,'" said Tom Snyder, arts coordinator and producer at West Allegheny.

Students can be set builders and artists, lighting and sound managers, riggers managing flying components, costumers, makeup artists and orchestral musicians. The numerous jobs allow students' various skills to shine.

"So, what we have found is that students that were interested in the other side are now becoming more skillful and more educated themselves, which is exciting because it raises the bar for the entire show," said Kiesha Lalama, educational director at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, the Downtown nonprofit that produces the annual Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musical Theater.

For example, because of increased student interest in stage production and management, Point Park University — in partnership with the Pittsburgh CLO — is offering its first scholarship in stage management to a senior from a school participating in the 22nd Annual Gene Kelly Awards in May, said Lalama, who also is a Point Park assistant professor of dance.

West Allegheny's five-show production of "42nd Street," the district's 21st consecutive musical, included a cast of 68 students — 16 of whom were middle-school dancers — and about 25 members of a stage crew that designed and moved sets, opened curtains, and managed rigging and sound and light boards, Snyder said. Students also participated in the pit orchestra and as ushers clad in tuxedo shirts, bow ties and cummerbunds, he said.

The district maintains a stage crew of students that operates year-round to support any event in the auditorium, even those held by outside groups that rent out the auditorium, he said.

Sophomore Joey Falcioni, 15, has worked as a stage crew member for the past three years, starting with "Big, the Musical" in 2010. He graduated to more technological responsibilities with this month's "42nd Street," in which he helped with wiring, lighting and set building.

The productions offer a sense of inclusiveness, he said.

"There is a place for a person of every skill set," said Falcioni, who is president of his class.

That inclusive spirit even lets newbies shine on stage, with experienced students taking supporting roles at times, teachers said.

Senior Jaymie Macek, 17, played Maggie Jones in a supporting role for "42nd Street" even though she is a seasoned lead performer, having appeared in four fall plays at the high school and eight musicals in the district.

"Oh, my gosh, I love it. When I sing, I just smile because I'm on stage and performing for people," she said.

South Fayette's three regular presentations of "Annie Get Your Gun" from March 30 to April 1 will include 48 cast members, said director Mariann Mackey, who has been overseeing the school's musicals for 19 years.

Of the 16 students in Mackey's stage production class who designed sets, painted and made props for the show, six are stage crew members.

"I love being behind the scenes. I don't like being the center of attention," said crew member Heather Bee, 16, a sophomore.

The arts also are tied to better academic performances, said Randy Cohen, vice president of research and policy for Americans for the Arts, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for arts programming.

He cited The College Board's 2011 data that showed students who had taken four years of art and music classes scored about 100 points higher on their SATs than students who had taken a half a year or less.

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