It's been many years since a full-length musical production came to the Paonia High School stage. Musicals take work and talent. They take training and dedication, costumes, sets, a good stage manager and crew, and hours and hours of rehearsal.
It can be daunting. But when it all comes together, it can be magic.
Last week, "Elf the Musical" came to Paonia, and it was magical. After opening night, several comments appeared on social media: "Well done, and some really great singers on that stage." "Very sweet enjoyable night out; a really fun show." "You'll be glad -- you've given yourself this treat."
Bringing Elf to the stage was the idea of teachers Merrily Talbott and Dee Holt. Talbott is the Hotchkiss K-8 drama teacher and has provided performing arts opportunities for children for more than 15 years as the founding director of Paonia Players. Holt, a PHS graduate, is a longtime musician and vocal instructor.
They knew they wanted to collaborate on a show and that they wanted it to have a holiday theme, said Holt. After considering several scripts, they decided on "Elf."
"Elf" has become a classic among holiday shows. Based on the book by Bob Martin and Tom Meehan and the 2003 hit comedy movie starring Will Ferrell, "Elf" follows Buddy, one of Santa's elves living in Christmas Town at the North Pole, who as an infant was transported to the North Pole after crawling into Santa's sack on Christmas eve. He grows to tower above all the other elves, he's klutzy, and he struggles to meet daily toy quotas. One day he learns he's human, and that he has a father and half-brother in New York City. With Santa's approval, he heads south to seek his true identity.
In Manhattan Buddy is out of place and painfully socially awkward. He causes trouble for his dad and botches a dinner date with his love interest, Jovie, a Macy's elf. When Santa, whose sleigh is powered by the belief in the spirit of Christmas, gets stuck in Central Park, it's up to Buddy to make everyone believe.
The show ended a three-night run last Saturday. More than 60 students and adults from throughout the North Fork Valley were involved in the production. The cast of almost 50 actors, singers and dancers starred Justin Holt as Buddy the Elf, Courtney VanVleet as Jovie, Derek Holt as Walter Hobbs. Jordan Evans as Emily Hobbs and Aniya Evans as Buddy's half-brother, Michael Hobbs. All brought their professionalism and beautifully-trained voices to the stage.
Many of the show's performers are active with the Paonia Players. Justin, who turns 15 this week, has been with Paonia Players since he was about 9 years old. "He took to it right away," said Talbott. "He's quite a ham and feels so comfortable in front of an audience." Talbott said she originally didn't have him in mind for the role of Buddy. The handful of boys who auditioned are very talented, she said. "As it turned out, Justin really was the best choice. He is the perfect Buddy."
Justin loves the stage and credits Talbott for introducing him to the craft. "It just really exploded, and I'm having a great time," he said Saturday night after the final curtain call. He has a talent agent and a manager and has been scouted by a talent agency. He landed his first audition last February, for a TV series his mom Dee described as a zombie musical. He didn't get a part, but just a couple of weeks ago he auditioned again, for a part in a Disney Channel project.
Talbott hopes the part will help him in his pursuit of his career goals.
Buddy was a totally new character for Justin. "I love how he's always happy," he said. Talbott gave him a quote that describes Buddy perfectly: "You know you love me, but you just don't know it yet."
Walter Hobbs is very serious and works far too much at a company that publishes children's books. He isn't prepared to have an elf for a son, and he doesn't believe in Christmas. For Derek, an accomplished singer and swing choir member who recently earned All-State Choir honors, Walter Hobbs was his first big part in a musical theater production.
Playing dad to his younger brother had its challenges, said Derek. He originally thought he'd audition for the part of Santa, but decided on Walter. "Santa's in there, but I think it was more fun to be Walter," he said. There were a couple of scenes where he looked at his brother and had to hide the laughter. "There were definitely a lot of laughs during production and rehearsals," he said.
His favorite scene? When he screams at Buddy for shredding a rare manuscript. "I loved doing that scene," he said with a grin.
Courtney Van Vleet's character, Jovie, is a Macy's elf with whom Buddy is love-stricken. This was her first part in a musical. Van Vleet, a senior, said she's grateful for the part, especially since she's strongly considering a minor in theater in college. She said that her favorite part about the whole production was "getting to know the underclassmen and getting to know more of the upper classmen that I didn't really know."
Both Courtney and Justin said it was fun working with Talbott. "She's definitely strict, but she knows how to put on a good show," said Courtney.
"She knows what she's doing," said Justin. "You can really tell that she takes it very seriously and that's a good thing, and that's why the show was so good."
Holt was the show's musical director and co-producer. All 45 of her voice students were involved in the production and began learning the music in late September. The most fun, she said, "is when it all comes together and the kids can see the results." In the beginning, all the components -- the sets, the songs, the dances, the scenes and the lines -- are separate and it's hard to see where it's all going. "It's not a lot of fun early on," said Holt. But as it all came together, she could see the kids' excitement growing.
A host of other students and community members worked behind the scenes to make "Elf the Musical" a reality. In addition to the choreographers and director/producers, Jaquari Lord was stage manager, and some 25 others worked behind the scenes as technicians, lighting, stage and set-up crew. Costumes were made by Charlotte Morrell, Dee Holt, Linda Talbott, Marjorie True, Beth Delahaunty and Marge Bryson, and coordinated by Ikechi Elendu and Liz Evans.
Jay Ritter's shop class students made the sets, and the art students of David Kuta painted them.
Talbott knows the work it takes to bring a musical to the stage. She grew up in a musical family -- her parents were both musicians -- and has been involved in theater for as long as she can remember. She has brought more than a dozen shows to the local stage, including "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" in 2001, "Grease" in 2009, and "It's a Wonderful Life, a Live Radio Play" in 2012 and 2013. Last May she celebrated the Paonia Players' 15th anniversary with a show at the Paradise Theatre, and a condensed version at the Town of Crawford's newly-refurbished stage.
She gives credit to everyone who helped bring "Elf" to life and called Holt "an incredible co-producer and music director." But she admits that pulling off a full-length musical "is a tremendous job." Now that she's teaching full-time, she said she's not likely to jump into another big production anytime soon. But, she added, if anyone is interested in putting in the work, she'd think about it. She can be contacted through the Paonia Players Facebook page.