Whether or not you have noticed, a magical thing is taking place in Forest Hills. For within The-Church-In-The-Gardens and The Community House, seeds of music, memories, art, and theater are being planted, and the flowers blooming from these seeds are being sown the world over.
“What is she talking about?” you may be wondering.
It is the Forest Hills Garden Players, led by Artistic Director, producer, writer, composer, teacher, and “gardener of children’s imaginations,” Betina Hershey. Since 2003, Hershey has served as the lead creator of original musicals for children. These full-scale productions are created specifically with the Garden Players in mind, and once they take root in Forest Hills, they are quite literally sent into the world, to be produced by other children’s companies across the earth.
This year, Hershey was joined by Music Director Sunny Knable, whose musical influence was notable throughout the show.
Although the Garden Players musicals deal with universal emotions and issues anyone across cultures can relate to, the local community effort put into each production as they make their world debuts are as notable as the high quality of the productions themselves. This year’s show, “What If?”, is no different. Each player’s costume was as unique as the child wearing it. The set, which included a giant story book with turning pages, an effort of the parents of the players, was a perfect complement to the music, stories, and choreography by Julianne Abouzaid.
Perhaps one of the most touching aspects of this year’s show was something the audience couldn’t see directly. There was a second “cast” of Garden Players alumni, running the technical aspects of the show behind the scenes, supporting the children on stage as they took their turn in the spotlight. A torch is being passed for the making of theatrical history, which highlights the vitality of the company Hershey has nurtured for 13 years.
“What If?” features a cast of characters that includes Dragons, Martians, Earthlings, Native Islanders, and Atlantis Survivors, which Hershey deftly pulls together into not only a coherent story, but a touching one too. The story is one of love, loss, fear of the unknown, friendships, and reunion. It’s all in there. Over 40 kids on stage at one time singing and dancing in tight harmonies. And choreography? That’s in there too.
The Garden Players has grown to the extent that Hershey and her team have two casts, Red and Blue. I had the privilege of seeing the Blue Cast perform on closing night.
The show opens with the Dragons in their polished dialogue, with quick and witty timing. They were followed by the Martians, who made a reference to a prior GP show, “Space Pirates.” For those in the know, it was actually hilarious. Knable’s and Hershey’s musical style stood out in the song “I’ll Be Your Martian,” a jazzy catch tune that could have doubled as a sitcom theme song.
A standout among the Martians was Jordan Hemmerdinger, playing Zetsu, in her fourth GP production, calling the experience of collaborating with so many people “amazing.”
Hershey’s signature ironic humor played out when the Earthlings made their debut as the littlest cast members. Singing the most crowd-pleasing song, “We Would Get Along,” the Earthlings played both parents and children, followed shortly by the big show-stopping number belted by the Dragons, “What If?”.
Jack Potter, who played the Dragon named “Friendly Fire,” performed in his first GP show this year, much to the pleasure of his brother Ryan and his mother, who were seeing the show for the second time. His brother reported he had recently seen “The Lion King” on Broadway. “This is better,” he declared.
While humor is a hallmark of any GP show and belly laughs are a guaranteed part of the deal, Hershey does not shy away from drama. The seaweed-laden Atlantis survivors heaped it on in their moving introductory ballad as they lamented all those they lost, singing, “Everything I had is gone.” But just as the moment got heavier, The “Salty Crustacious,” sung by the Crabbies ushered in the comic relief of the entire show. Special kudos to the Jungle Chefs, Carro, Gar, Onio, and the expert Italian accent award goes to Brocco, played by Eliot Nieva.
Happily, the Atlantis survivor group resolved their dilemma when reunited with their families in the their inspirational power ballad, “Tell It to the World.”
Speaking of the world, Waverly Ross, who played an Earthling, had her biggest fans, her parents and grandparents, who came to see the show all the way from Maryland and Long Island, saying, “We’re excited, she’s excited, which makes it all the more positive.”
Hershey’s message about the power of theater, imagination, and the seeds that feed our souls was perhaps best summed up at the end of the show in the curtain call. Children’s voices singing with all their hearts, “We’re all part of the magic to entertain.” And out into the world another GP show is launched.