The 'Beauty' of teamwork: Monument Valley students prep for Disney musical

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Anyone who wants a role, gets it.

That's the directors' policy for Monument Valley Regional Middle School's annual musical. No student gets turned away, and everyone has a place on stage or behind the scenes.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, nearly 50 students cast in this spring's production of "Disney's Beauty and The Beast" filled the school's cafeteria, which has a stage and can double as an auditorium. The show's stage manager, seventh-grader Bobby Clady, greeted this reporter with a professional handshake and an offer for full backstage access into the inner workings of this production.

"They call me 'Scooter' because I do a lot of different things and move around really fast," he said.

Clady says he's been involved in theatrical productions since kindergarten, with both roles onstage and off. His current role is "to make sure people are in their correct positions and they get feedback."

The show includes students in grades five to eight, as well as a few volunteer ninth-grade alumni from neighboring Monument Mountain Regional High School.

"We have a stage crew club that meets weekly, a costume and props team, set designers and more," said musical director Sunhwa Reiner. She's part of a team of adult leaders known as "The Core Four," which also includes director Joshua Briggs, choreographer Stephanie Cohen and teacher Julian Park.

"We try to get lots of students involved in leadership positions," Reiner said.

While kids like Clady are glad to take on leadership roles off stage, others are helping to steer the show on it.

Eighth-grader Athena Wingo is playing one of the show's lead roles, "Belle." She sees it as her responsibility as an older student to make participating peers feel welcome and engaged.

"I've been involved in theater since age 6, and it's what I want to do for the rest of my life," she said.

"When I was in fifth grade, not as many people were involved in the musical, but I think it's becoming more appreciated and more diverse. I used to be the only one, but now more students of color are doing the musical too. It's very important to make musical theater a place for everyone."

Like an athletic team, she said, theater can generate similar feelings, a sense of belonging, being a part of something bigger than yourself and working toward a common goal.

Through "Disney's Beauty and The Beast," students are learning to take new risks, rise to new challenges and step out of their comfort zones.

Since the school musical does not have a Broadway budget, the cast and crew have had to be creative when it comes to special effects. Instead of having dozens of pieces of dancing silverware for the musical number "Be Our Guest," the designers have cleverly attached forks and spoons to yellow umbrellas that can be twirled.

Other students are singing solos, learning new dances and stepping on to a stage for the very first time.

"Be alive more than you ever have been," Briggs directed.

Park says he loves seeing students embrace their new roles.

"A lot of people don't realize how talented and energetic this age group can be," said Cohen.

Reiner said the show's emphasis on inclusion shows students how they are capable of working with people who are both similar and different from themselves.

"I like how everyone cooperates with each other," said sixth-grader Riley Coach.

The students and staff say they hope community members will not judge them by their age, but their efforts.

"We're not a show with professional props and things," said sixth-grader Lily McDonald, "but we put as much effort as we can into it, and that makes up for it."

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