In 2004, the first year I wrote and directed an original musical for the Garden Players, there were 35 kids in the cast and we did a full length original musical called “Lemontales.” Everyone their own special moment within the arc of the plot. That was an exciting year. Some of those kids still come back and help out backstage. The cast grew each year until we had 70 kids on the stage. Staging 70 kids so you could see them was a directorial feat that I didn’t want to repeat, so this year I did something different… I split the group into two casts.
The kids were used to being with their own age group and I knew they would miss each other, but I thought about my years of summer stock and regional theater and how every time I did a show I was in a new city with a new family of actors. The Garden Players, too, created new bonds with actors both younger and older than themselves.
The Most Epic Birthday Party Ever is the story of what happens when all of the adults in Skyler’s birthday party vanish and the kids are left to fend for themselves. Charlie is elected king, Kurt the Protector and Kai lead kids on military water balloon protocol adventures, Jo has to figure out how to make pizza, and Skyler runs off to her treehouse where she is eventually joined by others trying to escape Charlie’s bossy lead.
Two of our leads, Amanda Talero, the skittish Charlie in the Red Cast and Robert Stryczek, the perfect drill-sergeant Kurt in the Blue Cast, have been with us since Kindergarten. Some of the many other stand-out performers include Clare D’Amato as a sincere Skyler, Matthew Levy as a comical and angelic-voiced Charlie, Nathan LoPinto as the intensely outdoorsy Wolf, and Sydney Lundin as the truly panicked girl locked in the bathroom.
Parents rallied together and created sets more thrilling than we’ve done in years with MaryBeth Bentaha organizing a muslin backdrop painted as the back yard, Rich Garcia building a tree house that supported 5 actors 7 feet above the stage, Tania LoPinto and Patricia Trillo creating costumes made out of pizza boxes and garbage bags, and Britta and Darren Lundin creating rainclouds rigged to appear in the middle of our final scene to break the tension of the impending water fight.
A lot of things will be changing at Church-in-the-Gardens where the Garden Players reside. Reverend Noel Vanek is moving to a new parish. Denver Casado, my Garden Players writing partner, is moving to California. Our 8th graders are moving on to Frank Sinatra, LaGuardia and other specialized schools. Two casts was an experiment, and I have yet to decide what I may do differently next year, but I believe each kid had an epic time, and as the Garden Players continues to change and evolve, I plan to be there, enjoying the magic of theatre.
Betina Hershey is director of The Garden Players and a professional performer with two year old twins. www.gardenplayers.com