Mahomet-Seymour High School hosted four consecutive days of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," and anticipation for the shows was so great, tickets sold out before performers stepped on stage on opening night last Thursday.
"I kind of expected it sell out," said junior Nate Douglas, who played one of the Beasts. "It's still a lot of pressure, because every single seat in that big auditorium's filled, and you've got a lot of people to impress. There's a lot of weight on my shoulders and the cast's."
Each role was played by two actors who alternated nights, so they could get a little rest between shows.
"We take turns so Nate, my counterpart, and his cast will go on Thursday and Saturday, and my cast will be on Friday and Sunday," explained senior Gabe Fulk, who also played one of the Beasts. "The reason we double cast is so that one person doesn't have to do four shows in a row, because that would be really taxing on the person."
Director Jaise Allen selected the musical with this cast in mind. Beyond his crew, his selection was based purely on his enjoyment of the production.
"I love 'Beauty and the Beast,'" he said. "It's one of my all-time favorites. It talks about love and seeing beyond the surface — those are things I think are important in society. I wanted to try my hand at it."
The challenge of such a large production includes the numerous costumes, set design, and large cast, not to mention the dance numbers.
Choreographer Darcy Allen pieced together wow moments, such as the Gaston cup dance, where numerous students utilized alternating movements and the clanking sound of cups to create a rhythmic delight.
"They loved that," Jaise Allen said.
Other big moments included the "Be Our Guest" scene in Act I and the reveal of Belle's dress, which was made by costumer Paula Wolken.
Numerous set changes, which were constructed by Tom Douglas, paved the way for transitions from Belle's home, the Beast's castle and scenes from the woods, among other locations.
The show also featured live music from a pit accompaniment, directed by Carol Allen.
The musical provided a safe space for many high school students to break out of their comfort zones.
"I hear nothing but positive things from these kids, their grandparents and parents," Jaise Allen said. "That gives a good idea of what it means for the community and means for their kids."
Thanked by a parent whose child auditioned for a lead role, Jaise Allen realized the importance of the musical when a parent mentioned the strides made by the youth off the stage and in the home.
"They stepped out of their shell at home, and they've seen them grow because of this," Jaise Allen said. "This program has been built up to something people look forward to every spring. It's built a reputation where people enjoy it."
This reputation wasn't something students took lightly. Beginning with younger performers, such as Addi Jones, an eighth-grader who plays Chip, the tradition was clear.
Jones said she became involved with the drama department, because many of her neighborhood friends took part in the performance.
"They've always encouraged me to be a part of it, and it's been a lot of fun so far," she said.
Jones was part of some of the magic and mystery of the musical in her role as Chip. Scenes created an optical illusion with her head appearing on top of a table as the teacup, with no sight of the rest of her.
"I hope people have fun watching us," she said during a Saturday workday.
As for next year, Jones had no doubt in her mind that she will audition again.
"There's no doubt in my mind that I'll keep going out for it," she said. "The people are a lot of fun to be around, and I've made a lot of new friends, which is awesome."
Experiences and memories from the musicals are what keeps performers returning year after year, such as junior lead Rachel Silvey, who played Belle.
"I've been doing musicals ever since my freshman year," she said. "Last year, I got the part of Rizzo, and this year, I heard it was going to be 'Beauty and the Beast,' so I thought, 'Why not give it a shot for Belle?'"
Silvey's favorite memories from the musical included the Saturday workdays, where students assisted with the sets and much more.
"The most fun part of what happens behind the scenes is sometimes we stay late and we'll go until 2 a.m. to get things done," she said. "You're getting work done, but you're also having fun by being surrounded by the people around you."
She was also delighted in knowing the shows were sold out.
"It's really, really cool to see how much the community surrounds the show to see our hard work," she said.
Some of the best memories for the students included moments that occurred behind the scenes.
"Before every rehearsal, we play music very loud, and Nate (Douglas), who plays the Beast, always belts it out an octave above the singing," said sophomore Joshua Cubberley, who played one of the Maurices. "It's the funny mess-ups when we're trying to memorize our lines, and we'll say something that doesn't belong there, and it's just hilarious."
For junior actor Caleb Jared, who portrayed one of the Gastons, his fond memories included a "curious" dress rehearsal immediately following the receipt of the costume rentals. During the final scene where all of the characters resumed to being human, one of the Cogsworths had difficulty changing and was unable to make it to his cue.
"There was this big grand moment when he's (Cogsworth) supposed to say something, and one of our Lumieres, Kiel Ledin — he's a bit of a comedian — improved this moment where every time Cogsworth was supposed to talk he would turn around and go, 'If Cogsworth were here, he would probably say this,'" Jared said. "It was hysterical. He was gone the whole scene and never actually made it on stage."
Ledin, a junior, said he enjoyed portraying the suaveness of Lumiere as he interacted with the other characters. Making appearances in musicals since his freshman year, Ledin, like many others, came to know the stage to feel like home and his cast members to be more like family.
"I love this program so much," he said. "Every year, whether it's the new freshman or the leaving seniors, I really like everyone here. The family we create through the whole year is really strong. It's cool to have a place feel like a second home. I've made some of my greatest friends and memories in this program."
Students also acknowledged the inner-strength opportunities the musicals provided them for growth. Fulk said his new sense of self-assurance is what he carried with him as he exited the stage for the final time and looked past the halls of the high school and toward his future.
"It's given me confidence in myself and the confidence to put myself in front of 1,800 people over the span of four days and be the only person on the stage and still be confident in myself," he said.
Echoing Fulk's comments is sound chair Zach Kietzmann, who found the position to be one that taught him leadership skills. The senior's main duties included making sure mics work properly and making the necessary, timely changes.
"I'm walking away with leadership skills because I've led for two years now," he said. "I'm always taking away some electronic knowledge. I'm learning how to be a part of a team."
Student director Katie Witruk, who also played Babette, enjoyed the responsibility to block characters in an effort to know where each appeared on stage.
"You get to decide if they're going to come on stage left or stage right," she said.
The junior's favorite part of the performance was the end, when cast members greeted their family members and friends.
"Everyone wants to talk to you and take pictures with you," she said. "It's so rewarding."
Senior performer Gabrielle Smith, who played one of the Silly Girl No. 2s, said she simply enjoyed the opportunities the entire music and drama departments provided students to explore.
"They've taught me to be strong and help me find who I am," Smith said. "I really sculpted my identity and my love of acting from the people around me. People like Mrs. (Nicole) Kuglich and Mrs. (Jill) Rinkel, they've let me have a lot of opportunities that I never thought I could have in a million years. They took this insecure girl from eighth grade, and they let her have a bunch of opportunities. I feel like I've found my purpose."
Thankful to have a platform and a place to learn and experience new opportunities, many students, such as Jared, wanted to express gratitude to director Jaise Allen and choreographer Darcy Allen.
"I really do want to thank the Allens. We are far too lucky to have them," Jared said. "The dedication and time that they show every year, they deserve a serious thank-you from me and from everyone."