By Pat Caldwell
ONTARIO – From the shadows, the voice is easy but insistent.
“What happened to the sleigh?” Sterling Blackwell said.
Blackwell, hidden inside the darkness of the Meyer-McClean Theater at Four Rivers Cultural Center, watched Saturday and guided his young cast of the play “Elf” through a rehearsal.
The musical, based on the 2003 movie of the same name, will open Thursday at 7 p.m., and shows again at 7 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $5.
Two separate casts – there are nearly 60 performers ranging from fifth grade to high school age – will stage the play about Buddy the Elf. Blackwell said the crucial part of the musical is the growth of the characters.
“I love shows that transform the audience. We want to see how the family changes,” said Blackwell.
The story of Buddy is, on the surface, a simple one. William “Buddy” Hobbs, an orphan, works as an elf in Santa’s workshop. When he discovers he is human, he decides to go to New York City in search of his father, Walter Hobbs.
Buddy, though, faces obstacles when he reaches the big city. He finds his father, who happens to be on Santa’s naughty list, to be less than welcoming. His turns to helping his father and his family embrace the true meaning of Christmas.
The musical has plenty of action and humor and Blackwell said directing it is a labor of love. Yet, he said, it hasn’t been an easy gig. Working since September to put the production together consumed a lot of time the Fruitland Middle School teacher said.
“I did the sets, the drops. I’ve been working on them for the last month,” said Blackwell. “It’s exhausting but I love it.”
Another challenge, Blackwell said, is ensuring his actors and actresses are motivated.
“Probably the hardest part is trying to maintain the energy to keep the kids engaged,” said Blackwell.
Blackwell said he gets a lot of joy out of watching young actors learn and embrace being in front of an audience. Watching his actors “fall in love with theater” is a good feeling he said.
Blackwell is no stranger to the stage. His mother, a professional actress, introduced him to acting when he was a child and he went on to gain a master’s degree in Theater Arts. He said he has acted in more than 75 musicals and knew right from the beginning he wanted to be on stage.
“The adrenaline rush of being in front of an audience, that’s what grabbed me,” said Blackwell.
The cast has been busy. Since September, Blackwell said, the cast rehearsed every Monday and Thursday. Blackwell said the cast includes youth from around the valley including, Vale, Nyssa, Ontario and Payette County.
“At first they are really apprehensive. But as we get into it they learn they can open more and it gets easier,” said Blackwell. “At the end of each rehearsal I give notes and sometimes I give immediate feedback.”
Matt Bell of Ontario and Audrey Saba of Fruitland play the role of Buddy the Elf. Saba, who said she would like to act on Broadway someday, said the experience has been a good one.
“We’ve been working really hard on this,” said Saba, 14 and an eighth grader at Fruitland Middle School.
Emma Hillman, 13, also from Fruitland, plays a television reporter in the musical.
“This has been amazing. It has been so much fun,” the Fruitland eighth-grader said.
Ontario High School freshman Indy May, 14, plays Buddy’s girlfriend, Jovie. May said she enjoys acting before a crowd, the bigger the better.
“I get so excited for performances,” said May.
May said playing her character has its challenges.
“For Jovie, Christmas has never really been important. But I love Christmas. So, it is hard for me,” said May.
Blackwell, 34, said the musical isn’t about one character.
“Though there is a lead, it is about the ensemble,” said Blackwell.
Blackwell said his desire is to put on a good show, but he also wants his young actors to walk away with something else.
“I want them to learn what it is to work hard and reap the reward of that hard work and have fun,” said Blackwell.
Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.