If the ability to improvise is a skill of the best actors, then the 42 young people who take the stage at Bernie Aaker Auditorium later this week have had the training of a lifetime.
The actors in Litchfield Community Youth Theatre’s production of “Frozen Jr.” have adapted to almost constant changes since they began rehearsal in late February, including the most basic of questions — would the show go on?
Like almost everything else in the era of COVID-19, safety and health guidelines created a menagerie of concerns and question marks. But the show will, indeed, go on.
The musical will have a four-show run, with performances slated for 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and a 2 p.m. Sunday show.
“I think it’s going to turn out great,” director Heidi Thoma said last week. “We just need to keep everybody healthy for a few more days, and it will be just fine.”
Thoma brings a wealth of directorial experience to LCYT, having been director of high school musicals at Yellow Medicine East and Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City in the past. She also has directed Litchfield High School’s one-act play for the past five years. In addition, Thoma has assisted with numerous Litchfield Community Theatre summer musicals, as well as LCYT shows.
She was tapped to direct “Frozen Jr.” last spring when a family emergency made the scheduled director unavailable. Of course, the show didn’t happen last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Thoma returned to finish the job this year, but it wasn’t quite like picking up where they left off. Some of the cast had changed, and many of the dance numbers were reworked.
“Some of the stuff we had (for props) but some is new,” she said. “Most of the kids came back, most of the leads, but we’ve had to do some shuffling.”
Among the leads are Thoma’s daughter, Megan, a senior at LHS, who plays “Elsa.” Her stage sister “Anna” is played by Grace Lindell. The two main characters age on stage with “Young Anna” played by Adeline Nelson and “Young Elsa” played by Viola Pennertz. Meanwhile, the role of “Middle Anna” is filled by Abby Thoma, and “Middle Elsa” by Raigan Miller.
Filling roles and figuring out props was just the start of the directorial challenges for this year’s show. Thoma and other assistants, including producer Louise Brooks, had to navigate the health requirements throughout the rehearsal schedule. Early rehearsals saw all cast members having to wear face masks, and later, restrictions were loosened to allow actors to use face shields.
Neither are ideal when trying to get young actors to project their voices to an audience.
“I’ll sit down and I’ll sing with them, and we’re getting some good sound with the masks on,” Thoma said. “We talked about pronunciation, we talked about opening their mouths. We have got to have that. They have worked on it.”
She also worked at spacing the actors on stage. Not the kind of “blocking” that a director might normally do to ensure a good scene, but a social distance kind of spacing.
“All the dances are set up the same, where they’re six feet by six feet apart,” Thoma said. “That’s how the dances are.”
“She has dots all over the stage,” Brooks interjected with a chuckle, explaining the stickers Thoma put down so cast members knew where they needed to be in big dance numbers.
“So, I say, go to a green dot, go to a pink dot … and they go to the dot,” Thoma said. “Actually, it has worked well. You don’t have the intimacy of some of the other staging, but on the other side, it was a lot easier.”
Rescheduling and canceling rehearsals due to scheduling conflicts at the auditorium, working with only half of the cast at a time, and working around illnesses have all been part of the job of getting “Frozen Jr.” to stage. It wasn’t until just a couple of weeks ago that the cast did their first full run-through of the show.
But as they’ve worked through the show recently, Thoma said, it has begun to come together well, and she has been impressed by the hard work put in by the young cast. And for her, the show is about more than what will happen on stage when the lights go up.
“Do I want a great performance? Of course,” Thoma said. “But I was told that this year it was more important that they had an enjoyable experience. And that’s what you’re going to see is the kids enjoying it.
“It’s been a joy for me, and you can see the kids just enjoy being back on stage,” she said.