By Kathryn Star Heart
The enthusiasm of the youthful cast of the Broadway musical Aida (pronounced “Eye-EE-Da”) is palpable as they successfully completed their first two of four performances last weekend. The 30 young performers have outdone themselves with this challenging stage play that encompasses not only outstanding theatrical performances but high quality singing and acting to rival even seasoned acting companies.
Possibly the most ambitious undertaking to date directed by David Carpenter, each student has put in roughly 100 hours of preparation and rehearsal as they memorized lines and staging, learned difficult choreography as well as challenging musical numbers. The director himself and the indispensable Dawn Carpenter have jointly put in closer to 1,000 hours as the show nears its final weekend.
Commissioned as an Italian opera by Ismail Pasha, Khedive of Egypt in 1869, Aida was originally composed by Giuseppe Verdi between 1870 and 1871. Elton John and Tim Rice adapted the opera into a rock musical that was produced by Disney Theatrical in the 1990s. The Broadway production, entitled Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida ran consecutively for over four years totaling 1,852 performances.
In deciding to bring Aida to Bonners Ferry, Mr. Carpenter said that it was actually the students who introduced him to the idea.
“Dawn and I started listening to the play in the car and we just loved the music,” he said. “We held auditions in early November and rehearsed every Saturday before Christmas break. After the break, we began four-hour rehearsals nearly every night after school. This show has offered a lot of stage time for the company players. Because of all the experience they are getting, the younger members of the cast will be better prepared for future performances.”
True to the Carpenters’ intent to allow students as much experience and control of their own theatrical production as possible, they encouraged several students to take lead roles in contributing to the show.
Charena Branscum, a junior, utilized her lifelong love of dance as the troop’s choreographer, a pretty amazing feat for a 16 year old.
“I learned a lot from Barbara Russell as far as warm-up technique and got a strong foundation in dance from her,” said Charena. “Working with Melanie Schreiner on Dance Team and in Grease also taught me a lot about choreography, but when it came to Aida, I choreographed the whole show. It was amazing to see how many kids who had absolutely no dance experience and even though they may not have had experience, they all progressed so far in their dance skills. They all “got it” as far as dance. They all worked really hard. Especially the younger kids; they really learned a lot. It’s amazing to see how far they’ve all come from the beginning.”
Another student, senior Amy Cederquist, not only performs as part of the company, but also worked as Student Musical Director for the show. Mr. Carpenter explained that when the musical score needed rearrangement in order to accommodate the requirements of the small cast, Amy rewrote the music, consolidating six parts into three parts. In Mr. Carpenter’s words, such a task is “way hard.” In addition, the cast also used her talent at the piano to act as rehearsal musician, playing a significant part in helping the students learn the music.
“It’s been really neat to see how the cast has come together,” Amy commented. “I have loved the transition from being a classical pianist to musical theater.”
What makes this production of Aida so special and worth going to see?
According to Gabe Palmer, one facet of the show is that the costuming is so bright and colorful. Costumer Mary Wilson volunteered her time and expertise to bring Ancient Egypt to life with her use of regal colors of purple, gold, black and white which adorn the stylized royal robes, headdresses and gowns of the Pharaoh and his daughter. Members of the Egyptian Army are realistically appareled in striped headdresses and swords. Jewels abound on the royal family contrasted with the Nubian slaves who are clad in shades of beige, befitting their lowly status.
Mr. Carpenter pointed out that many members of the company play more than one part, necessitating many costume changes, so Mary had to factor in ease of changing into her costume designs. Four local ladies volunteered to sew the many costumes, spending countless hours fitting, stitching and refitting as necessary to get the right look to the clothing.
Gabe added, “Sometimes it gets very hectic changing costumes and remembering what each character is wearing, and it’s also hard because you have to jump in and out of character, but this is more of a professional show.”
Sara Owinyo, a junior, plays the title character, Aida, who has been captured by the Egyptian army and forced to come to Egypt with the other slaves to perform labor for the royal family. Unbeknownst to the Pharaoh, his daughter and the captain of the army, Aida is actually a princess of Nubia who must keep her identity secret lest she be killed by her enemies.
“This show has been a lot harder,” said Sara who is a seasoned actress and vocalist. “It hasn’t been just all fun. This show is deep and it has been hard to get into such intense characters.”
Football player Brandon Ratcliff has found his participation in the play to be a good balance to his athletic career.
“I just thought being in a play was something I would like to try,” said Brandon. “I had been in theater before and thought that I’d like to try an actual musical.”
“He is another student who has blossomed,” replied Mr. Carpenter. “He worked really hard so we’ve put him into a lot of different roles within the play.”
For senior Evan Dornfeld, Aida holds a special poignancy.
“For what is possibly my last high school play, this is the best play Mr. Carpenter could have chosen,” he said. “For me, this has been the best because it’s a deep and meaningful production, more so than any other character I’ve ever played.”
“Evan plays his character, Mereb, a Nubian slave, so convincingly, that he has had cast members sobbing because of his performance,” said Mr. Carpenter. “He is simply an outstanding singer and actor.”
Another senior, Chloe Cavender, said that she felt deeply connected to Aida from the first time she listened to it.
“It’s such an amazing show,” she said. “It just speaks to me. This show means a lot to me because my character is so multifaceted and it’s been such a great challenge for me to be able to reveal all of Amneris’ many layers. Another challenge that I had to face is that I fell off the stage and was on crutches for a week and a half but I still got out there on stage and rehearsed. Working with the younger actors has been different. There have been more challenges to bond with this cast. The leads (Sara, Evan, Ben Heart, Jesse Tobin, Toby Eliassen, Zac McGary and Logan Wright) have had to work twice as hard to make all the company members feel like they belong. It’s been fun to have the little kids like Elizabeth Wright around. Charena and Amy are amazing.”
Logan Wright said that he has performed in many productions during his life, but that, in his opinion, Aida provides a unique cultural experience for residents of Bonners Ferry.
“The audience gets transported to another place,” he said. “You get to come see a brilliantly lighted stage and see the world of Ancient Egypt. I have performed in many productions during my life and this is, hands down, the best show I’ve ever done.”
What do these talented, dedicated actor and actresses hope that audience members will take away from the Aida experience?
“I hope they understand that we have worked so hard,” said Katie Boger. “I hope they realize how hard we worked at choreographing the dances and how much time and energy we have put into the show.”
Shayne Hamilton added, “I hope that the audience will take away with them how big a part of our community the performing arts is. There is more than just sports. Theater is important, too.”
As far as personal growth, perhaps Thelma Easley summarized what many of the cast and crew feel about Aida.
“I’ve changed so much,” she stated. “I always loved to listen to music but now I’m so much more into it and I just find myself dancing. Even if life is hard, we can always dance.”
“These guys are so amazing,” said Dawn Carpenter. “David and I put in so many hours so we can see each student in the moment and watch them blossom. We have such a closer connection than just a classroom experience..When we ask them to give more and they do, it’s just been unbelievable what these young people have achieved in this show. We also have so many people who have volunteered their talents to this show. Not only the costumer, the people who made the set and the seamstresses, but David Nygren of Main Stage Productions gave his time and knowledge to teach the students about professional lighting design. My hope is that these kids will remember what the adults in this community have given to them and that they will, in turn, give back to their community when the time comes.”
Aida will play two more times, on February 12 and 13 at 7pm. Concessions will be available to raise funds for the Performing Arts Department. Tickets are $8 for adults and $5 for students.
Aida: Sara Owinyo
Radames: Ben Heart
Amneris: Chloe Cavender
Mereb: Evan Dornfeld
Zoser: Toby Eliassen
Nehebka: Jesse Tobin
Pharaoh: Logan Wright
Amonasro: Zac McGary
Company Members: Jessica Beazer, Katie Boger, Charena Branscum, Tucker Cavender, Amy Cederquist, Zach Cleve, Samantha Earle, Thelma Easley, Shayne Hamilton, Andi Floyd, Jaymi McGinn, Ryan Mullison, Alex Navia, Gabe Palmer, Kailey Palmer, Lauren Palmer, Leah Peyke, Brandon Ratcliff, Katrina Svec, Tasha Thissell, Darian Tompkins, David Wilson, Elizabeth Wilson, Matthew Wilson.
Director: David Carpenter
Assistant Director: Dawn Carpenter
Choreographer: Charena Branscum
Lighting Design: David Nygren
Sound: David Wilson
Set: Dawn Carpenter, David Wilson
Customer: Mary Wilson
Student Music Director: Amy Cederquist
Assistants: Hannah Northrup, Olivia Stahl
This article was first published in FlatLander News Magazine and Program Guide on Feb 10, 2010