Musical gets whole school, community into the act


March 20, 2001|By Betsy Diehl | Betsy Diehl,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ACCORDING TO the "The Guinness Book of World Records," the musical "Cats" may hold the record for the longest-running musical show on Broadway and in London. Stevens Forest Elementary School has its own long theatrical span to boast about.

Physical education teacher Barry Palmer has been directing the school's musicals since 1981 - the year "Cats" opened in London. Palmer, who has taught at Stevens Forest since 1973, was inspired by a performance put on by third-graders in 1979 and wanted to do something similar that would involve the whole school. He pitched his idea to then-music teacher Eileen Bottamiller.

"My idea was just to coordinate it and then have the teachers do it," he said. After all, Palmer had no experience with musical productions, not even as a student.

Bottamiller agreed to help, but Palmer's energy and enthusiasm landed him in the director's chair - where he has been firmly planted ever since. He has learned a lot there, he said, putting on shows that included "The Wizard of Oz," "How the West Was Really Won" and "The Snow Queen."

But what makes these productions noteworthy is that Palmer has remained true to his vision of including the entire school.

"Everyone gets involved at some level," Palmer said. There are two main casts. One is made up of fourth-graders; the other, fifth-graders, performing on alternate dates. Third-graders are in the chorus. Palmer says he finds a part for every child who auditions.

This year's show, "Of Mice and Mozart," will include about 145 children. But that is only the beginning. The theme of the play is carried on throughout the school via art classes, where youths made paintings of 18th-century scenes and created torn-paper mice that grace the school's walls.

Art teacher Nancy Charamella created a pillar that stands in the hall, decorated with two decades' worth of photos from Palmer's shows, including a shot of a young Elise Ray (who went on to become an Olympic gymnast), dressed in mouse garb for a 1993 production.

Palmer said that about 105 parents and other community members pitch in to help with costumes, scenery, programs and producing the distinctive T-shirts designed for each year's show. "It's a real community project," Palmer said.

This year, music teacher Nina Clopton serves as music director, Pat Hamilton is the art director and Christina Estabrook is the choreographer. Some of Palmer's former students are serving as cast coaches or stage crew members - an annual job for some. Oakland Mills High School seniors Elizabeth Gray, Erin Villamor and Carleen Saunders have been assisting for years.

"I can't stop coming back [to help], because I've been doing it so long," said Villamor, who, along with Gray, has been helping for seven years.

Palmer does not plan to stop producing the school's shows any time soon - he has a lineup in the planning stages for the next five years.

But for now, his cast is scurrying around, ears flapping, tails swinging and Mozart-style wigs mostly in place, singing classical tunes with an updated flair.

"It's 18th century all the way," Palmer said, beaming.

"Of Mice and Mozart" will be performed at Stevens Forest Elementary at 2 p.m. Thursday and Friday and at 7:30 p.m. March 29 and 30 at Oakland Mills High School. Admission is $3 for adults; $1 for students.

Information: 410-313-6900.

Columbia singers

The Columbia Pro Cantare singing group will perform at Second Presbyterian Church in Baltimore on Sunday. Group member Kathleen Bowen noted that the church offers singers a unique venue. "They have a wonderful organ, which is not easy to find in Howard County," she said.

Among the 110 vocalists are east Columbians Esther Huebner, Carole Steere, Tom Buckingham, John Bailey, Dan Cashman, Dennis Coskren, Holly Crawford, Abby Ershow, Lisa Freund, Jeffrey Frithsen, Alberta Hall, Jim Hardy, Chuck and Viviana Holmes, Tamara Lubliner, Duncan MacDonald, Stephen Mack, Cindy Pelsen, Don Raytkwich, Mary Strickland, Mildred Taylor, Blanche Ventura, Christina Von Zeppelin, Margaret Wesley, Joa BonGiorni, Maggie Caldwell, Christine Carpenter, Pamela Clark, Susan Huerta, Drew Pastor, Andrea DeSanti, Jim Raistrick, Sara Cronk, Katherine Yemelyanov, Wanda Hurt and Melodie Janes.

The performance begins at 3:30 p.m. Tickets are not required for this free event, but donations are welcome.

Information: 410-465-5744.

Parting words

When Owen Brown resident Sue Trainor, an award-winning children's music performer and member of the vocal trio Hot Soup, teaches workshops on performing, she advises her students not to worry about making mistakes. That worry, she says, results in feeling nervous.

But Trainor was not always so relaxed on stage. When she was in the fourth grade, she signed up to play "Auld Lang Syne" on the piano for her school's talent show. As she was about to begin, her fingers would not move. "I froze, I absolutely froze," she said.

So how did Trainor handle her stage fright? "I ended up running off in tears!" she said.

The experience did not seem to have any lasting effect on the performer, save for one.

"I could not hear that song for years," she said.

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