Saying goodbye: Angel Gabbi Hughes, 11, and Head Star Phoenix Kilbourne, 8, greet students from the audience as they file out to their school buses.
by Dan Roblee
Judged by the several enthusiastic rounds of applause Friday, Just Be Christmas Inside appears to be a winner.
“It’s cool when they tell you it’s good,” said the cast’s ‘Rich Girl,’ Lillith Harsh, 9, who reveled in the appreciation of her peers – the audience of about 500 elementary students bused in from schools throughout the county.
The musical, adapted and directed by Ginger Masoner, was produced by Theatre Group New Mexico and featured a cast of 37 local students representing each of Grant County’s elementary schools, as well as a handful in their early teens. Most, said Masoner, had never been on stage before, though you’d never know it from their performances. “I didn’t have any stage fright,” confirmed Okechukwu Odocha, 7, one of the cast’s singing stars – in the celestial sense of the word.
Masoner, a recently retired teacher, who has previously directed operettas as well as school productions, said she made sure every child had a speaking role when she wrote Just Be Christmas Inside, to help them grow as actors and prepare for larger roles in the future. “That’s what theater does for people; it gives them confidence,” she said.
Masoner adapted the musical from two existing stories, the play Just Be Christmas Inside, by Winifred Bell, and the classic children’s book “The Littlest Angel,” by Charles Tazewell. Beyond entertainment, the meshed musical was intended to portray the true spirit of Christmas. In that, she succeeded, according to elementary teacher Vicki Thompson-Stout. “I think the message teaches the kids it’s not all about the stuff,” she said.
Following the show itself, audience members got to participate in a Christmas song sing-a-long led by MC and former professional singer Ward Rudick, who is also one of the Theatre Group’s founding board members. Working with the children was “a blast,” he said, adding that “they’re so sweet and really honest.” One child, he remembered, approached him quietly in rehearsal and pointed out that he was “really loud.”
Swan song: Master of Ceremonies Ward Rudick and cast members both in and out of costume sing a final song as they send student audience members on their way.
In the end, after a month of rehearsals, the verdict was rendered by the students in the audience – a jury of the thespians’ peers. Ava Bjornstad, 10, and Jose Barrias gave it two thumbs up, with Bjornstad admitting a bit of jealousy for those on stage. “I’d like to be up there, and I’d like to dance,” she said.
Just Be Christmas Inside is free to the public for the remainder of its weekend run, though donations of food or cash for the needy will be accepted. The remaining shows are Saturday, Dec. 8 at 10:00 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 9 at 2 p.m., at the WNMU Fine Arts Theatre.