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The Lakeland Times | Minocqua, Wisc.

Jim Tait 02/01-02/28/17

home : community : features August 23, 2017

8/11/2017 7:29:00 AM
LUHS production 'Hello! My Baby' earns four Tommy awards
"Return to Broadway" fundraiser to be held Aug. 12
contributed photograph

Lakeland Union High School’s spring 2017 performance of “Hello! My Baby” earned four Tommy Awards, designating excellence in high school theater. Pictured, top from left, are Josh Kakuschke, Aaron Petersen and Tristin Thompson; front are Vincent Strong and Bode Guthrie.
contributed photograph

Lakeland Union High School’s spring 2017 performance of “Hello! My Baby” earned four Tommy Awards, designating excellence in high school theater. Pictured, top from left, are Josh Kakuschke, Aaron Petersen and Tristin Thompson; front are Vincent Strong and Bode Guthrie.

Evan Verploegh
Features Reporter

On March 2, 2017, Lakeland Union High School drama department settled in for what was to become five shows of the Gershwin-driven musical "Hello! My Baby." Naturally, nerves were high, as they are with any opening show, but that opening Thursday, and the ensuing shows had a bit of added pressure.

The high school knew there were judges from prestigious Tommy Awards. Named after the broadway star Tom Wopat, the Tommy Awards, much like the Tony Awards, honor excellence and innovation in Wisconsin high school theatre. Just honored that the judges choose to make the lengthy trip to Minocqua to acknowledge theatre in the Northwoods, LUHS drama director Vicki Fleming was already pleased, but what was to come was more than icing on the cake.

"Hello! My Baby" is a dynamic show, filled with high octane musical numbers and witty, sometimes dry humor. The students, along with everyone involved with the LUHS program, knew a little extra effort was required to truly pull the show off - and did they ever.

The awards

The shows were performed (mostly without a hitch) and now it was time to wait. Educators and industry professionals reviewed productions at more than 80 high schools in 23 countries in the state of Wisconsin. Feedback is garnered at each of the performances, with an awards ceremony scheduled for June 11 at the beautiful Overture Center in Madison.

Needless to say, competition was stiff. Furthermore, this would be the first time LUHS would be participating in the judging process, leading to some added pressure and uncertainty. The school went on to earn four awards in 2017 - Outstanding Supporting Performance went to Molly Larson for her portrayal of Ethel Coots. Individually, Choir director Jen Boots and band director Bill Richter were honored with an award for Outstanding Musical Direction. Maggie Laurence was awarded the Spirit Award.

"We have just a fantastic student body and there is a culture and a legacy of great performances that everyone now aspires to," Fleming said, noting that two 2017 LUHS students will be pursuing music education degrees in college. "We have also been fortunate to have great incoming freshmen, which have played big roles in recent shows. Just when you think all the good ones have left, another crop comes through."

Already looking towards the fall where the school will be producing "Spoon River Anthology," which will be performed in black box style, where audience members sit on stage alongside the actors. This is one example of LUHS willingness to raise the bar, and give a unique experience for theatregoers. The spring musical will showcase the 2013 revision of Roger and Hammerstein's "Cinderella."

Though art and theatre is usually not pursued with the idea of earning awards in mind, Fleming said it is things like the Tommy Awards that give students just a little extra motivation, and validation knowing their hard work is not going unnoticed.

"Now that we've been there, we'll expect to go back. There is that fever now," Fleming said.

She said it was an honor to attend the awards ceremony, and made her realize the expansive budgets and resources some of the larger high schools in the area have - making LUHS' successes that much more special.

"This was a banner year for Lakeland with the Spirit of Excellence award and the athletic success. It was great to be able to be a component of that," she said.

For Molly Larson, the idea of being acknowledged on such a large scale came with an immense sense of reward. Heading into her junior year at LUHS, Larson has been involved with every LUHS production possible over the last two years and her efforts were honored with receiving the award for Outstanding Supporting Performance.

She said the rehearsal process for the production was intensive, and although she said playing the role of Ethel Coots fit in well with her personality --"I'm very bossy" - the couple numbers with her onstage husband (Jacob Schlosser) sometimes fell a bit outside of her comfort zone.

"It was about tapping into this voice that I never really knew I had," Larson said. "It was much lower and very colorful. I really had to immerse myself in the character."

She believes the ensuing recognition was based on her becoming one with the character and consistently working to adapt and evolve.

"It was a character that I really grew into, and eventually became comfortable with towards the end. I did my best to stop being afraid of being really weird on stage," she said.

Larson pointed to Rachel Handrick, who held the female lead role, and male lead Aaron Petersen as examples of exemplary casting of the show. This, along with a awe-inspiring set design and snappy musical numbers allowed for a truly refreshing trip to the theatre.

"Theatre allows me to really be whoever I want to be or feel like I can become. With Ethel, I felt like I could explore parts of my personality; not be ashamed of them," she said. "Theatre allows me to be myself whilst also providing something really cool and exciting for other people."

Larson made sure to give credit where credit is due, pointing to Fleming as a key influence and driver for not only her own development, but the success of the LUHS theatre program. Choreographer Lisa Africano, who was in the midst of battling a brain tumor, fought through to develop the steps for "Hello! My Baby."

"Our musical numbers would just not have been the same without her," Larson said speaking of Africano. "She brought everything to life," she said. "Jane Van Order (costume designer) adds a whole dimension to the show, bringing a sense of color and visual appeal to the stage."

Tech director Mike Effinger pulled double duty, playing drums in the show, while also setting up lights and sound. Furthermore, the development of the set was a component of the awe-inspiring show. The immaculate design allowed the viewer to be truly transported to Tin Pan Alley.

"I've never seen anything like it before," Larson said, speaking of the set. "Miss Jennifer Boots and Mr. William Richter should also be recognized for their work. Mr. Richter allowed a small band to create such a rich backing for all the singers and I think he had a great time playing all those weird percussion instruments. Miss Boots helped a lot of people push through to reach a different part of their voice that they otherwise couldn't find."

The LUHS drama department deserves all the recognition it has received and its four 2017 Tommy Awards exemplify efforts to push beyond typical high school productions into true excellence. With a group of dedicated individuals, and inspired students, great things will continue to come for the theatre program.

On Saturday, Aug. 12 a fundraising event for the Drama Club will be held at LUHS at 7 p.m. Entitled "Return to Broadway," the event will bring back alumni and feature current students on a slew of Broadway classics. A suggested donation of $5 will be taken at the door, with proceeds returning directly towards the theatre department. Patrons should use the north entrance, due to the prevalence of construction at Lakeland Union High School.

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