Many elements come together in theater experience
By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant
CEDAR RAPIDS — To turn a middle school student into a “teacup, an evil octopus or a long-necked giraffe,” all it takes, according to Barb DeMeulenaere, is the right combination of fabric and everyday objects, along with a healthy dose of “outside the box” thinking. DeMeulenaere has created costumes for musical productions at LaSalle Middle School and Holy Family Catholic Schools in Cedar Rapids for the last 23 years, working closely during that time with Lynn Mann, who’s been directing musicals in the school system for nearly four decades. Together, Mann and DeMeulenaere have helped the students of LaSalle to establish a strong tradition of high quality musical theater.
As the music director at LaSalle Middle School, Mann teaches vocal music classes, band and choir, but has said one of her “favorite extra-curricular activities is the production of the annual school musical.” “Each year, the musical is a new and unique adventure; many special memories are made,” Mann said of the 39 musicals she’s directed during her tenure with Cedar Rapids’ Catholic schools.
DeMeulenaere, or “Mrs. D.” as the students affectionately call her, is the learning strategist at Holy Family’s St. Ludmila Elementary in Cedar Rapids, where she teaches third grade reading, math and science, and also works with third and fourth grade talented and gifted students. She’s been collaborating with Mann on musicals since 1993, when she created the costumes for that year’s production of “Alice in Wonderland.” A talented seamstress, DeMeulenaere has not only designed the costumes for the musicals since then, she’s also sewn most of them as well.
The musicals that Mann and DeMeulenaere team up together on at LaSalle each fall semester alternate between a Disney musical one year and a classic musical the next, so, for example, this year’s production was Disney’s “Lion King, Jr.,” while last year’s was the time-honored “Annie, Jr.” Other recent performances at LaSalle include “Beauty and the Beast,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Little Mermaid.”
“This year’s musical involved 58 students from sixth through eighth grades; this included the cast, choir and crew,” Mann said of December’s “Lion King, Jr.” production. “We average 60-100 students for our musicals, depending on their class sizes.”
Students who participate in LaSalle’s musical productions commit to meeting for practices four times each week during the months leading up to the performance, three time in the morning before school and once in the evening after school. During the week of the performance itself, students have three evening rehearsals, including one dress rehearsal.
“Each year, the dress rehearsal is an exciting night as the students get on a real stage and with the music, lights, props and costumes really take on their characters, and everyone’s hard work, especially the students’, come together in a memorable production,” DeMeulenaere said.
Following all those practices and rehearsals, LaSalle students perform their musical each fall on the stage at Xavier High School during an afternoon matinee and two evening shows.
Mann said that volunteers, especially parent volunteers, have long been crucial to making these performances a reality. “They build the sets, help with props, help organize the costumes and assist with numerous other jobs,” Mann said. “For this year’s ‘Lion King, Jr.’ production, 12-18 parents volunteered to make masks, hats, wildebeests and puppets. This group of parent volunteers started meeting last June to organize and prepare for the December musical.”
No one received more praise from Mann, though, than the LaSalle students themselves. “Students put their heart and soul into their performances!” she said.
“I think we are almost as proud of them as their own family when they are a part of something like the musical,” said DeMeulenaere.
“They love getting on stage to sing, dance and perform for the audience,” Mann added. “For some of these students, this is their first experience of a Broadway show. The musical provides an opportunity to learn about what is involved in putting on a performance. Many go on to perform in high school musicals. One of our lead roles for ‘Aladdin, Jr.’ chose to make a career of theater performance.”
Keely Cookson, a seventh-grader at LaSalle, played one of the orphans with a “hard knock life” in the school’s production of “Annie, Jr.” last year and had several different roles in this year’s “Lion King, Jr.” For Cookson, the best part of having gotten involved in the school’s musicals has been the people she has had the chance to meet as a result. “You get to have a new experience with people you don’t know and make really good friends,” she said.
Olivia Nasution, who is in the sixth grade at LaSalle, had the opportunity to be in a musical for the first time this fall, playing a giraffe, a wildebeest, a jungle plant, and several other parts in the production of “Lion King, Jr.” She believes her first musical taught her a great deal. “I’ve learned that if you work hard and do your best, good things will come out of it,” she said, “but most importantly have fun!”
Mann said it’s a privilege to be able to teach at LaSalle and to direct the school’s musicals each year. “The musicals have positive, long-lasting effects on all who are involved, especially for me,” she said.
This year’s musical at LaSalle was the last for which DeMeulenaere will serve as costume director. DeMeulenaere called the musicals “a labor of love” that she will miss greatly. But it’s probably safe to say DeMeulenaere’s not entirely done helping with LaSalle’s musical productions quite yet. “I might still have to help with a costume or two,” she said, “just for my own enjoyment.”
This story is provided courtesy of The Witness, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.