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Chocachatti actors journey 'Into the Woods'

The ambitious play, which borrows elements from four fairytales, has more than 50 songs and dialogue that is sung, not spoken.

[Times photo: Olie Stonerook]
Amanda Lehman, left, Sheila Clements and Alexandra Fitzpatrick play flower girls.

By LOGAN NEILL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2001


Even as they meander about the stage, waiting for rehearsal to begin, the young ensemble of singers is busy practicing.

Off to one side, 10-year-old Ryan Nelson goes over one of the tunes he's supposed to know by heart. Dressed as Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk in a green, felt costume, he's not only getting a feel for his character, he's also getting a reality check on what it will be really like once he's on stage in Chocachatti Elementary's upcoming production of Into The Woods.

"Everybody says the costumes are pretty hot when you're in them for a long time," the fourth-grader said. "Mine's not so bad, but I haven't really gone through the whole show in it. It might be really hot."

Such are the realities of the live stage. On Wednesday the production opens with a school-wide performance, followed by five additional public performances April 27-29, and May 4 and 5.

For the approximately 75 students of the school's drama and dance production companies, the musical represents hours of fine-tuned rehearsal needed to ensure that the complex show will come off as perfectly as possible.

"It moves a lot faster than any of the other shows I've been in," said Mekaella Lord, a fifth-grader who has acted in two other Chocachatti productions, and who is set to play a wicked witch in Into The Woods. "There are a lot of lines, so you have to really pay attention to everything, or you get lost."

The Stephen Sondheim musical, which was written in the late 1980s and performed on Broadway, borrows elements and characters from popular children's fairy tales such as Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk and twists them into a non-stop collage of song and dance.

Although a bit less ambitious than last spring's production of Cats, Into The Woods was every bit the challenge that the show's director Dennis Caltagirone figured it would be. With more than 50 songs, and dialogue that is sung instead of spoken, it's probably his students' most unusual theatrical undertaking.

"It's very non-forgiving, meaning that if someone forgets a line or a cue, you can't stop and go back," Caltagirone said. "This is the type of show where everyone has to step up and put forth their best effort."

So far, Caltagirone is pleased. Even though final rehearsals won't be run until this week, the students proved to be quite insightful when it comes to understanding the musical, which was written with more of an adult viewpoint in mind.

In fact, Caltagirone felt it necessary to do a bit of script editing in order to feel comfortable bringing it to an elementary school stage.

"There are some very funny parts to it, but unfortunately, the Broadway version had some rather graphic violence and blood, and we just weren't interested in that," said Caltagirone.

Because the casting call brought out so many participants, Caltagirone formed two separate casts from members of the school's choral, dance and acting companies. The two casts will alternate on upcoming performances.

Help for the production also came from Gail Sullivan's art students, many of whom helped paint scenery boards, as well as from teacher Carol Ballard, who helped design many of the show's costumes.

Caltagirone, who has taught drama at the school since it opened last year, believes that young actors benefit greatly from participating in well-organized presentations, and that the extra effort results in huge benefits even to those students who are just learning their performance craft.

"They can tell when you've gone through a lot of trouble to make it the best production possible," Caltagirone said. "It means you believe in their abilities and talents, and that they've earned your respect."

Chocachatti Elementary's spring production of Into The Woods opens April 27 at 7 p.m. and also will be performed April 28 and on May 4 and 5. A 3 p.m. matinee performance will be April 29.

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