The Zumba class that usually exercises under the nave of Roxborough Presbyterian Church on Ridge Avenue has been moved due to an imminent tornado – of the theatrical kind.
A cast of 22, from ages five to 19, is getting ready for the premiere of its “Wizard of Oz” performance on the stage in the church’s basement. While Dorothy was still in Chuck Taylors and skinny jeans on Tuesday, NewsWorks dropped in on the group’s rehearsal to learn about the extraordinary effort of this teen-led program.
As Dorothy and Toto (performed by the 16-year-old Marykate Purcell and the 11-year-old C.T., respectively) arrive in Munchkinland onstage, there’s a whiff of aftershave in the darkened house and a youth in gray sweatpants appears. Mike Karl, a church elder and chaperone for the project, introduces the 16-year-old director, Anthony Hillanbrand.
Young as he is, Hillanbrand, a junior at Roman Catholic, is a veteran of the project. He’s not a member of Roxborough Presbyterian, but the ample stage in the church basement caught his eye when he was 12. He and a cousin, Sabrina Hillanbrand, approached church staffers with a proposal for a youth-led theater group there, and they were successful.
Three shows strong
The youth theater group he founded at the church is known as ASH, originally an acronym for Anthony and Sabrina Hillanbrand. They began four years ago with a talent show, tackled “Seussical Jr.” last year, and launched “The Wizard of Oz” with a weekend of auditions last October. Karl and other program participants note the growth of interest among local families over the years: word of the casting call spread through social media and Hillanbrand chose his cast from an ample crop of kids and teens. Since then, they’ve been rehearsing twice a week.
Hillanbrand settled on the “The Wizard of Oz” for his fourth production because “it’s a family favorite” which includes characters searching for positive values, only to learn that these virtues already exist inside them. “It’s a good moral for the younger kids,” he says.
Participants and their families raised money for the program with a breakfast promotion at a local restaurant and bake sales. Profits from each show’s ticket sales will go toward next year’s production. They’re in pretty good shape this year; each of the two shows this weekend is already sold out.
The NewsWorks interview ends abruptly as the lanky Hillanbrand jumps up and hares to the stage – it turns out he’s the Scarecrow.
The cast and its young leadership
Act I concludes relatively smoothly, though one of the crows does have to take Toto out for a walk mid-scene. ASH’s Toto and Dorothy are real-life companions: Purcell has had C.T. (short for Clifford Thomas, a mysterious name bestowed in puppyhood by a previous owner) since she was four.
Hillanbrand was still searching for a Toto when Purcell landed her role, and she suggested bringing her tiny brown and black Miniature Pinscher in to try out. Since he’s an avid barker, she had her doubts about whether he’d fit the bill, but he took to the stage admirably.
Now, C.T. seems to enjoy his starring role. “When we pull up to the church, he goes crazy,” she says.
Another cast member who never expected to be on stage is Roxborough Presbyterian pastor Raymond Garcia, who has been with the church since September. He surprised himself by agreeing to play the Wizard – it’s his first theatrical role, and he doesn’t regret taking the chance: “I wanted to show my support for Anthony and the kids.” Since only about a third of the kids involved are members of the church, the ASH program has been “a natural way to connect with our neighborhood,” and has proven an excellent form of community outreach.
Church Elder Lisa Carpenter, who serves as the show’s stage manager and choreographer, is quick to dispense with the notion that the adults have indulged Hillanbrand with the name of ‘Director’ while really running the show themselves.
“He’s definitely beyond his years,” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard to remember that he’s 16. A lot of the time it feels like he keeps us all together.”
Hillanbrand indeed shows an excellent grasp of the director’s role for his age, confidently re-working glitches in blocking, tech, lines and sound from the stage between scenes as the Scarecrow, which he performs with total commitment. He shows finesse in his directorial choices, which make creative use of the entire room.
He also proves himself an able wrangler, as the cast takes ten for intermission and there is a sudden breakout of snacking elementary-school Munchkins.
“Guys, we do not walk around and eat!” he addresses the kids. “We can eat, but we don’t do it out here.” The munching Munchkins file dutifully out a side-door.
“Anthony, can I go to the bathroom?” one tiny girl asks, dispelling any doubts about who is in charge.
The finishing touches
For their parts, the older kids are feeling confident that the show is going to come together in time for their opening on Friday. Purcell, a sophomore at the Center for the Performing and Fine Arts, is the veteran of many other shows, including past ASH productions. Jazzmin Hillanbrand (the Tin Man), Kelsey Schepise (the Cowardly Lion), Erin Mancini (The Wicked Witch of the West) and Samantha Church (Glinda) gather at intermission to agree that, of course, they still have some work to do on their characters, and quite a few props have yet to materialize.
ASH is accustomed to a shoestring budget and a production schedule in which many props appear in the helter-skelter just before opening night. But nobody’s concerned. According to the cast, the last couple of hours will be enough for the props to come together. They begin Act II with gusto, and Dorothy and her companions arrive at the Emerald City’s gate.
Karl hopes that next year’s show will attract even more participants, as more local families become aware of this unique creative outlet. “The children really seem to enjoy themselves, and the relationships they build,” he says.
The shows will be held tonight and tomorrow at 7 p.m at Roxborough Presbyterian Church. For more information on the theater group, go to ash.rpcnet.org.