- Associated Press - Saturday, March 11, 2017

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) - When Lauren Morus was planning for the 2017 spring musical at Conemaugh Valley High School, she knew a youth movement was in order.

Several sixth-graders have joined the cast of school’s production of “Peter Pan” - dancing and singing alongside stage veterans in the upper grades.

“Musicals are really for seventh- through 12th-grades,” Morus, the district’s elementary music teacher, said. “But last year, so many great seniors graduated. And I was thinking about, how do we grow this program even more?

“I knew this group of sixth-graders very well. Many of them - probably 90 percent of the students - I’ve had since kindergarten. So I decided to open up the auditions to the younger kids because I knew this is a good class.”

Morus said “Peter Pan” is “the perfect musical” for a cast that might stretch from ages 11 or 12 through 17 or 18. Many of the younger performers will play the roles of the “lost boys” or the pirates on Captain Hook’s crew.

At Conemaugh Township Area High School in Davidsville, the cast of “Annie Get Your Gun” includes junior high as well as senior high-age performers.

“There’s not much available for them to do at that age,” director Mari Grace Lingenfelter, Conemaugh Township’s drama and music teacher, said of her seventh- and eighth-grade cast members.

“If you can get them interested and involved in seventh or eighth grade, they really stay with it,” Lingenfelter said. “And if we don’t get them by this age, we might lose them.”

Support and leadership

Casadie Miller, a Conemaugh Township seventh-grader, is participating in her first high school musical.

She said the cast’s older members have not made her feel like an outsider.

“Everyone acts like a family … they help you with everything,” Miller said.

Conemaugh Township eighth-grader Zane Heinlein agreed.

“I really love working with the older kids,” he said. “They’re really nice.”

At Conemaugh Valley, sixth-grader Kathy Goas is playing a pirate in “Peter Pan.” She said getting to know the older cast members has been “a really fun experience.”

Conemaugh Valley senior Cara Cekada said the veterans have a responsibility to help the younger performers so they grow and improve and also for the sake of the show.

“We’ve got to whip them into shape!” Cekada said with a laugh.

“We’re trying to prepare the best we can with the dancing and their lines and making sure they feel comfortable,” she said, adding: “I think it’s great having them in the play. They all bring their own little stuff that maybe we don’t bring, and maybe that youthful spirit. And I think that’s really great.”

Olivia Skovensky, a sixth-grader playing a “lost boy” at Conemaugh Valley, said younger cast members have the opportunity to develop maturity along with enhancing their stage skills.

“The seniors have been so nice to us. They’ve really helped us,” she said. “We’re learning to play the part of a leader.”

Anxiety and hard work

Skovensky said the joy of performing is mixed with a level of stress.

“The auditions were very nerve-racking,” she said, “and I was nervous, of course. … I just tried not to mess up.”

Goas said of trying out for a part: “It was hard, because you had to wait awhile to see if you got in.”

Harley Maldet, a seventh-grader, is part of the Conemaugh Township makeup crew for “Annie Get Your Gun.”

“It’s really bad if you mess up,” he said. “You have to get everything perfect. But overall I think you enjoy it more than you worry about it.”

Fellow seventh-grader Ava Zimmerman noted that other responsibilities can’t be set aside because she takes part in a musical production.

“It’s a lot of work and stressful nights, because I have a lot of schoolwork and stuff,” she said, “but I still manage to get it done.”

Even the younger cast members said they are not novices when it comes to getting out there in front of a room full of people.

Goas said she’s been involved with a dance organization “for five or six years. That helped me be better prepared to be on stage and dealing with the nerves.”

Skovensky said: “I’m used to standing up on stage and performing for a crowd. I’m not nervous about when I have to speak, sing or dance for a crowd.”

Thrill of performing

Isabella Stroscio, a Conemaugh Township eighth-grader in her second musical, said she loves the spotlight.

“The second I stepped on the stage I was literally hooked,” Stroscio said.

Conemaugh Valley senior Brooke McCleester said the students have had the freedom to help develop the dance routines and onstage movements.

“We didn’t have a choreographer, so we all got to chip in and help decide what we were going to do,” McCleester said. “For that reason, we felt more involved.”

For the “Peter Pan” cast, “The song ‘Ugg-a-Wugg’ is really fun,” she said. “It’s our big dance number.”

For these students - and hundreds across the region - the hours of hard work are about to pay off.

“I think we all - our directors, our cast and our crew - we all worked really hard to put this show together in a short amount of time,” Cekada said. “And I think it’s going to come together really good.”

At Conemaugh Township, Lingenfelter said her diverse cast is “like a big family. They get along great.

“The younger kids really look up to the older kids. And the upper classmen show them the final product of what they want to be.”

The directors said audiences should expect to see hard-working kids presenting fun and exciting shows at a high level - no matter the age of the performers on stage.

“This is not an elementary-school production,” Morus said. “It’s not a junior show.

“This is a high school production - with sixth-graders in it.”

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Tribune-Democrat photographer John Rucosky contributed to this report.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2m8FJck

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Information from: The Tribune-Democrat, https://www.tribune-democrat.com

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