The four dozen students in this basement classroom at New Westminster Secondary School pretty much run the gamut of high school life.
There are Grade 9 students alongside seniors, newcomers alongside those who’ve been active in the life of the school for years. There are shy and reserved kids who keep to themselves, and outgoing ones who claim their space with confidence. There are experienced performers who’ve been onstage since they were tots working next to those who’ve never been in the spotlight before.
But however different they are, however diverse their backgrounds, when these teens come together, they’re a team. They’ve got each other’s backs, and no one’s getting left behind.
This is the cast and crew for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the New Westminster Secondary School musical that’s onstage at Massey Theatre Feb. 26 to 29. It’s the latest outing for the school’s for-credit musical theatre course, which brings together students in grades 9 through 12 to experience all aspects of staging a musical – culminating in the production at the Massey.
Teilani Rasmussen, a Grade 10 student who’s starring as Belle, is a newcomer to NWSS. She previously attended McNair Secondary in Richmond but transferred to NWSS this year specifically for the musical theatre program.
“It’s awesome because I get to start my morning every single day with something I love,” she says. “It keeps me smiling and excited each day. I have somewhere to go to if I’m ever feeling down. It’s a whole new realm of people who are here for you and have your back.”
It’s a theme that returns, time and again, in a morning of interviews with students: the sense of belonging and the knowing that their team is there for them.
Josh Eusebio, the Grade 12 student who’s playing Beast to Teilani’s Beauty, has been active in the musical theatre program since Grade 9 – he appeared in Legally Blonde that year, and in Crazy for You in Grade 10.
“Ever since I got here to N Dub, this has been my home,” he says, gesturing around the choir room where the students are rehearsing. “I just love theatre. I love performing. I love being a part of it. … I love that we have such a good community here. The bonds we build are really strong.”
Emma Gruger, another Grade 12 student, appears as LeFou, Gaston’s sidekick. She’s enjoying working alongside friends both old and new, helping the younger students along the way. Though she’s planning on a non-performing career – possibly teaching or something in the sciences – she says the musical theatre program has been a key part of her high school years.
“It’s kinda my home within the school,” she says. “They’re all super kind, and everyone helps each other out.”
Part of working as a team means learning from each other, and Grade 11 student Joey Ellam notes that’s one of his favourite things about the program. Some students are strong dancers, while others excel in singing or acting – those who are leaders in one area will work with the others to bring everyone’s performance level up.
Joey already has a strong acting background, having taken part in Arts Club Theatre youth intensive programs, but he’s appreciating working with some of the strong actors in the group to hone his characterization of Maurice, Belle’s father.
“Everyone here is super-supportive,” he says.
Scotia Browner, a 14-year-old Grade 9 student who’s playing Chip (the young teacup), agrees. She’s one of the youngest members of the cast but says she never feels treated differently by the senior students.
“They’re like a bunch of older brothers and sisters for me,” she says. “They don’t treat me like a Grade 9. They treat me like an equal.”
Scotia, who was first exposed to musical theatre through a class at her dance school, is already an experienced performer who’s appeared in a variety of community and professional productions.
The NWSS program, she says, has a special vibe.
“It’s really great. Everyone’s very focused, it’s very professional,” she says.
That professionalism is particularly valued by those students who are eyeing a future in theatre.
One of those is Lauryn Savela, a Grade 12 student who’s appearing as Madame de la Grande Bouche, the opera-singing wardrobe. This is her first big musical with the school; she first got involved in a musical theatre fundamentals class last year that helped her get over her stage fright. Now she’s looking at applying to theatre schools for next year.
She’s not alone on that front.
Skye Wilkinson, the Grade 12 student who’s playing Mrs. Potts, has her sights set firmly on a stage career. Skye is an experienced performer – a longtime dancer, dance teacher and singer – who’s applying to musical theatre and opera programs for post-secondary studies.
She values the chance to take part in a program that produces such a high-level show.
“It doesn’t feel like a school musical, it feels like a legitimate production,” she says. “It’s just a high level of commitment from everyone – the actors, the crew, the people making the set.”
At the helm of the crew are two student stage managers, Grade 12 students Claire Fabian and Jade Bouchard.
They’ve taken three younger students under their wing to mentor them, teaching them how to serve as stage managers not just for the musical theatre production but for other NWSS drama and dance shows as well.
Both Claire and Jade worked on the NWSS production of Crazy for You two years ago, and both have also volunteered with Royal City Musical Theatre productions.
Claire intends to pursue stage work professionally and has applied to the technical theatre program at Capilano University, while Jade plans to follow her interest in mathematics and statistics to UBC.
Both say they find joy in working in theatre, and in passing on the knowledge they’ve gained to the next generation of students.
“I love being a part of something like this. It’s cool to be backstage,” Claire says. “You’re making the magic happen in small ways.”
Ask any of the students what makes this program so successful, and every single one agrees: the teachers.
The students are quick to note that drama teacher Frances Monteleone, vocal teacher Kelly Proznick and dance teacher Lindsay Waldner go above and beyond their role as teachers and essentially take on a whole second job to stage the musical.
“The teachers are so supportive and nice and understanding, you really feel like you’re part of the family,” Claire says.
For Alia Homenuke, a Grade 12 student who appears as the narrator, it’s the teachers who make the program special.
“You can see their passion,” she says.
Alia notes the work they do to build up the program, bringing students of such diverse backgrounds together, has impacts far beyond the show itself.
“It’s honestly really enlightening seeing how a whole group can come together. It makes you meet people you would never meet,” she says. “It really builds the community of the whole school.”
CHECK IT OUT
What: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, presented by New Westminster Secondary School
Where: Massey Theatre, 735 Eighth Ave.
When: Feb. 26 to 29, with shows Feb. 26 at 6:30 p.m., Feb. 27 to 29 at 7 p.m., and Feb. 29 at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $15 to $20, www.ticketsnw.ca