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The cast rehearses one of the high-energy song-and-dance numbers from “Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr.” (Bonnijean Cooney Adams photo for Tube City Almanac)
If You Go
“Schoolhouse Rock Jr.”
Where: Francis McClure Middle School, White Oak
When: Thursday through Saturday, but two performances are sold out. One of the performances will be recorded and streamed at a later date. Details will be posted on the McKeesport Area School District and Founders’ Hall Facebook pages.
Tickets: No admission at the door. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, seats are extremely limited and some performances are already sold out. To ask about tickets, email EMoore@mckasd.net.
Years after Edward Moore studied theatre arts at West Virginia Wesleyan College, he’s directing and producing his first musical — “Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr.” — featuring Founders’ Hall Middle School students.
“I guess that being a singer/actor with a college degree in theatre arts, I always wanted to try my hand at directing,” he said.
Moore works as an assistant to the Special Education Department at McKeesport Area School District. His musical credits include performing as a chorister for Pittsburgh Opera for more than 30 years.
After the former middle school musical director retired, Moore said he was approached by principal Tom Knight to take over.
The student cast and crew of Founders Hall Middle School musical prepare to present “Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr.” May 6-8. (Bonnijean Cooney Adams photo for Tube City Almanac)
“I was afraid, if I didn’t step up and lead this, that the program would die,” Moore said. “For me, the clincher was the kids. The heartbreak felt by many of the students last spring, when ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ was canceled because of COVID, left a bitter and unresolved taste in my mouth. And there was absolutely nothing any of us could do about it.
“I saw, in producing and directing our show, an opportunity to control the circumstances a little, try as best I could to teach with our COVID protocol in place. I just wanted them to have the chance to perform as middle school students again,” he said.
The musical runs Thursday through Saturday in Francis McClure school’s auditorium in White Oak, since there is no auditorium at the middle school. The show is currently sold out.
“Three is a Magic Number” is one of the math components in the musical, which is based on the popular Saturday morning ABC cartoon series from the 1970s. (Bonnijean Cooney Adams photo for Tube City Almanac)
Transportation to rehearsals also proved challenging, with students attending classes for a partial day, then taking buses home. They needed a way to get from home to rehearsals Monday through Thursday from 3 to 6 p.m., and then back home again.
That challenge was met when Moore found out the district received funding for busing and other expenses for the musical through the Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Centers Grants.
Jane Coughenour, McKeesport Area director of state and federal programs, said the district has been part of that grants program for approximately 15 years, and they provide federal funding for academic, artistic and cultural enrichment opportunities for students in order to meet state and local standards.
“The 21st CCLC grant was able to provide for the musical, the salary and benefits of the staff that has produced the production, funds for the costumes and the materials to build the sets, the transportation for the students to and from practice, equipment necessary to perform, lighting and sound production costs, as well as the choreography costs,” she said.
“Conjunction Junction, what's your function?” are part of the lyrics to one of the popular “Schoolhouse Rock” songs. (Bonnijean Cooney Adams photo for Tube City Almanac)
Selecting the musical was another challenge. Performing the 2020 show was not an option, Moore said, because “Birdie” is about an Elvis-like character, Conrad Birdie, and a publicity stunt that has him giving a last kiss to a lucky young lady before he joins the Army. Social distancing and mask-wearing requirements ruled that out.
Instead he chose “Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr.,” a high-energy musical based on a 1970s television cartoon series that aired on Saturday mornings. It presented educational information through skits and songs such as “Conjunction Junction.”
Costumes reflect the era, with lots of blue jeans and tie-dye shirts, with a sprinkle of special outfits for featured characters.
Theyalah Harris, left, and Cooper Kuchma as Elvis rehearse a number with the rest of the cast on the stage at Francis McClure. (Bonnijean Cooney Adams photo for Tube City Almanac)
The musical focuses on a young man named Tom Mizer, who is feeling anxious about his first day as a third-grade teacher.
While flipping through channels on his TV, he finds “Schoolhouse Rock” reruns. The characters from the show represent all the thoughts in his head about teaching, as they guide him to feel confident in his own abilities.
Moore said he is fortunate to have been included in audition and casting decisions for the musical for the past six years.
“You study the roles and the vocal (singing) requirements. As you audition the kids you listen for certain specific things,” he said. “We have always used an audition panel of music/theater staff and professionals. This year we had six people in the room with the kids, everyone socially-distanced.”
Seventh-grader Lucas Sotereanos said he was aiming for the role of the teacher when he auditioned.
“Because he’s a dreamer, I’m sitting or standing off to the side in many scenes,” he explained, while his cast members perform on center stage.
Sotereanos said he had to learn a lot of lines, “because I have dialogue before every single song. Timing is crucial,” he added.
He said his favorite number is “Just a Bill,” but “Interplanet Janet,” featuring Anastasia Bakaturski as Janet, is a fun number.
“Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr.” is a good show for ensemble and main characters. Key roles have solos, while the rest of the cast is onstage singing and dancing, too.
“I also ‘created’ some minor roles that aren't normally observed in other productions of this show,” Moore said. “Roles like Sacajawea, Napoleon, and even a Congresswoman, are mentioned and there may be staged movement given to some actors, but I decided to actually costume these characters, give them movement and (with the exception of one role) give a solo singing/speaking line or two.”
Eighth-grader Riley Sheposh is Dori, featured as a singer and dancer in numbers such as “A Noun is a Person, Place, or Thing,” and “Elbow Room.” She reflects Tom’s silly, playful side.
“I’ve been taking dance since I was two years old,” Sheposh said, “and acting since I was in fifth grade.”
Antoine Smith, who is in seventh grade, said he has been studying performing arts since he was 5. In “Schoolhouse Rock,” he plays George, a calming influence for Tom.
“I am happy that we are getting to do an actual theater production,” he said. “Back when I first heard about the show, I wondered, ‘How are we going to do this (with Covid restrictions)?’ I’m very happy with my role, but if I just got ensemble, that would have been fine, too.”
Smith said a few times reruns of “Schoolhouse Rock” popped up when he was watching TV, but he did not consult them to prepare for his role. He said he did view music videos of some of the songs.
“I like the music and it is such an upbeat show,” Smith said. His character takes the lead on “Three Is a Magic Number” and “Just a Bill.”
Connor McGrew is Joe, dressed in overalls and a railroad conductor’s cap for the familiar “Conjunction Junction.”
But he said his favorite number is “Great American Melting Pot.”
Joe comes from the more laid back part of Tom’s personality. McGrew said learning the lines was one of his biggest challenges, along with proper diction with each song.
Hallie Cleary said prior to “Schoolhouse Rock Live!, she’s performed in one other musical and two plays. As part of the ensemble, she said she likes “Do the Circulation” for the dancing.
In her first middle school production, sixth-grader Theyalah Harris is in the ensemble and plays Sacajawea.
“The ensemble is a very important part of this show,” she said. “It’s been a lot of fun and I got to meet a lot of people.”
Reflecting on his first experience directing and producing, Moore said, “This crazy ride has been a tremendous experience for me. First, the support from McKeesport Area School District, Dr. Jane Coughenour in particular, coordinating the 21st Century Grant, and paying for the royalties, and practically everything.
“Founders' Hall principal Tom Knight has been in my corner and staunchly supportive of our students since he and I first spoke about this, I believe in October,” Moore said.
He also credited the parent group who “provided their time, skill, and food during a couple grueling six-hour Saturday rehearsals,” along with supporting their student-actors throughout the process.
As for his support staff, Moore said all except the choreographer are district co-workers. “If it wasn't for their efforts, their decision to join me on this ‘Pandemic Production,’ it just wouldn't have happened.”
He said he’s most grateful for “this rare but beautiful opportunity to forge relationships and memories with a diverse group of students that I normally would have no interaction with while I perform my job (as a Special Education assistant).
“I will never forget this collection of students,” Moore said. “Their dedication and willingness to learn, despite the inherent dangers of meeting every day with COVID hanging over our heads, constant hand-washing, mask-wearing, sanitizing, and distancing ... Their behavior through all of this is a testimony to just how much young people want to have normalcy in their lives, and what they are willing to do to perform. It has been a remarkable run.”
“Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr.”
Mr. Tom Mizer (a school teacher), Lucas Sotereanos; Dori, Riley Sheposh; George, Antoine Smith; Shulie, Gianna Sotereanos; Dina, Elizabeth Nemes; Joe, Connor McGrew; “Elvis,” Cooper Kuchma; Janet, Anastasia Bakaturski; Congresswoman, Estrella Pescod; Thomas Jefferson, David Denardo; Napolean, Jacob Sherwin; Sacagawea, Theyalah Harris; Lewis/The Dad, Gabriel Shelly; and Clark, Devin Van Riper.
Sydnie Baldinger, Ashley Chambers, Hallie Cleary, Lily Cleary, Timothy Cooke, Charlee Dowling, Jada Lawson, Madison Martino, and Makenzie Yeager. Ensemble/The Kid, Michael Payne; Ensemble/The Mom, Ashley Slagle; Ensemble/Photographer, Jordan Wagner; and Ensemble/Scary Bear, Leighanna Weimer.
Production Staff and Crew:
Producer/Director, Edward Moore; Music Director, Drew DeCarlo; Choreographer, Nicole Mance; Set Design and Construction, Nathan Cross; Stage Manager, Vik Patel; Set Construction, David Kelly; Vocal Coach, Beth Eger; Music Assistant, Keith Parton; Costumes, Taylor Tamburo and Kelly Headrick; Scenic Design, Anna Chappell; Production Assistant, Kelley Larson; Lighting Design, John Light (Starbeat Productions); Sound Technician, Jason Light; and Stage Crew, Sincere Hill, Taylor McElfresh, Bailey Mellon, and Oliver Moore.
Bonnijean Cooney Adams is a freelance contributor. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published May 05, 2021.