Annual musical helps middle schoolers build confidence and make new friends
by: Vern Uyetake, One of the two casts that will present the 2008 Middle School Musical “Annie Get Your Gun” is seen in a rehearsal finale Monday evening. The two casts will stage the popular show in the West Linn High School auditorium beginning April 10. Above: Carolyn Cruze, who plays Annie Oakley, and Reed Sturtevant, who plays Frank Butler, are seen backstage while the other cast members are rehearsing.

Middle school can be difficult for many teen-agers. But there are ways for everyone in the cast of the annual middle school musical to shine like a bright new penny.

Dana Edvalson, Barbara Vardanega and the crew that works on the West Linn-Wilsonville School District's annual middle school musical find ways to let everyone stand in the spotlight.

At least for a little while.

Edvalson is founder and artistic director and Vardanega is music director. This year's performance is 'Annie Get Your Gun.' It will be staged in the West Linn High School Performing Arts Theatre beginning April 10.

'We try to make it comfortable for children who feel uncomfortable anyway,' Edvalson said. 'It always works out, because we talk about how important it is to support each other.'

No one knows that better than James Lavery, an Athey Creek Middle School eighth-grader who plays Buffalo Bill in one of this year's two complete casts.

'You try to help people when you're not on,' he said.

His newfound friends have made him feel more comfortable with his singing - which previously made him feel self-conscious.

Now, when he gets a compliment, he finds it easy to compliment others in return.

As seventh-graders last year, James and a friend had so much fun in 'The Pirates of Penzance' that they made a commitment to return to this year's performance.

The directors try to make it that much fun.

'Adolescence isn't an easy time in life, and they are going through a lot - physically and emotionally,' said Vardanega. 'Music and drama really help these kids find ways to be expressive and develop courage and self confidence in front of others at an important time in life.'

Both directors have a passion for working with this age group.

'Middle school students are way more capable performers than most people give them credit for,' Vardanega said. 'They are able to give amazing performances with the right encouragement and support. If they catch on fire - there's no stopping them.'

The first show the district put on was 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat' in 1995. Vardanega joined the second year and the two directors have put on shows that include: 'The Wiz,' 'Peter Pan,' 'Annie,' 'The Pirates of Penzance,' 'Bye Bye Birdie,' 'Guys and Dolls,' 'Beauty and the Beast,' and now, 'Annie Get Your Gun.'

'It works,' Edvalson said. 'It feels impossible and usually several times throughout the process, we're sure it is impossible. But it's not. It's big, unwieldy, noisy and messy; but in the end, we all come together and create something interesting, fun, affirming, educational, entertaining and important on many levels.'

Part of what is important to the students is the friendships they make and the confidence they gain.

'It bolsters their self-esteem,' said Amy Biancardi, mother of four children who have participated in the musicals. 'They feel like they can do anything. I think it's wonderful when kids can go and feel good about themselves and be with their friends.'

Christine, an eighth-grader at ACMS, is the most recent Biancardi participant. This year she's playing Jessie, one of Annie's sisters.

She said it was fun last year, and she wanted to be in the musical again this year to see friends she had met from Rosemont Ridge and Wood Middle Schools.

'I'm sort of shy,' Christine admitted. 'It has helped me be more confident about myself and more outgoing.'

Her brother, Michael, now a sophomore at West Linn High School enjoyed the experience so much that he's back this year behind the scenes. He's working with props and sets.

'It gave me something to look forward to at the end of the day,' he said of his middle school musical performances in 'Bye Bye Birdie' and 'Beauty and the Beast.'

'I liked being part of it, so I came backstage,' he said.

Other students such as Oliver Muggli, an ACMS seventh-grader, gain the confidence to perform. Oliver has performed in Athey Idol the past two years, and now he's Charlie Davenport in 'Annie Get Your Gun.'

'I love being on stage,' Oliver said. 'It takes a lot of time, but it's been really, really fun.'

Oliver said his sister, Georgia, a WLHS freshman, encouraged him to make the leap. She said she had fun when she was in the middle school musical, and encouraged him to try out for it.

Many students find that while they have fun, they also grow.

Throughout the plays they've directed, both Edvalson and Vardanega have seen many transformations.

'Of course students' abilities and talents improve and their confidence and poise go way up,' Edvalson said, 'but what I really like to see is the friendships made and the bond they always have (even years later) with their cast. We've learned and changed and improved and many times stretched ourselves more than we thought we could.'

But students aren't the only ones who change and grow.

'Mr. Mo,' John Moshofsky, a social studies teacher at ACMS has performed in all 14 musicals.

He's seen the experience positively affect everyone involved.

Moshofsky has gained more confidence speaking in front of his students, and he's proud to see everyone progress - especially the students.

'I think there are at least one or two students who come into this who don't know many people, and they come out of this more confident,' he said. 'They really step up to the plate. They meet the challenge every year.'

Vardanega mentioned her favorite part of the process.

'I love the moment backstage, just before the show on opening night,' she said. 'The orchestra is usually backstage, so, as the theater grows dark and quiet, I am surrounded by the adult volunteer pit musicians and the students in their costumes. You can feel the excitement in the air and the anticipation on their faces.

'As the music begins, it's the moment that always reminds me that all the months of extra hours are absolutely worth it.'

If you go

WHEN: April 10, 11, 12, 14 and 15 at 7:30 p.m. The matinee performance is April 12 at 1:30 p.m.

WHERE: All performances are at the West Linn High School Auditorium, 5464 A St.


MORE INFORMATION: At the end of both Saturday performances, all middle school musical alumni are invited to join the cast onstage wearing their middle school musical T-shirts and sing 'There's No Business Like Show Business.'

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