SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The curtain will rise on the stage at South Portland High School this week for the first time since the start of the pandemic as the cast and crew of its spring musical present Disney's "The Little Mermaid."
For more than two years the stage has sat dark and empty. The show's creative designer, Sarah Gay, still remembers the day back in 2020 when she and director Jen Fletcher learned they would have to press pause on their upcoming production of Suessical."
"Jen and I were here the night that we pulled out the 'ghost light', closed everything, turned off the lights and had this moment of like, 'Oh god we just have to let our production go?'" Gay said. "'We have no idea when this is going to end, we have no idea when we will be able to bring this thing back into our community that means so much to so many people.'"
Fast forward to April 2022 and the stage lights are back on. Students have been busy memorizing lines, learning dance numbers, and perfecting their pitch these last several weeks and now it's almost time to lift the curtain on all their hard work.
"I love theater so much, I joke sometimes that it's kind of like my therapy," SPHS senior Kaelyn Gildart said. "I really love just being able to play different roles and being different characters and all that. I just love the program, I love the people, I love just like the bonding it involves and it's great, I'm really happy to be back."
Gildart will be taking on the role of Ariel, with senior Jonathan Deroche playing the role of Prince Eric. These young actors will tell you, the wait hasn't been easy.
"When you have such a constant your entire life and when you grow up doing a certain thing you really enjoy, it becomes part of your identity and when you immediately lose that completely it’s a little hard," Deroche said. "So, senior year in a way has been re-finding the love I have for what I’ve done for years and kind of in a way a last hurrah because I’m a senior."
The cast said while it's been great to be back on stage together, it's the bonding and friendships that stand out the most. Those friendships stand out in numbers like "Under the Sea" and "Les Poissons" and, if their smiles don't catch your eye, their costumes will.
"The costumes are so fun, they're all so exciting, they're all so unique," said Gabe Domingo, part of the ensemble. "For instance, I'm a goldfish and I'm just all gold and it's just so fun to wear and you really feel in character when you put on that costume. It just raises the excitement by so much and it's just a lot of fun."
"I’ve done theater a lot throughout my life but high school shows, there’s just something about them that makes them more fun." Shelby Christiansen said. Christiansen is dance captain and also part of the ensemble.
That fun that wouldn't be possible without the hard-working crew behind the scenes. Jen Fletcher is tackling her first show as director, but she's no stranger to the stage at South Portland High School.
"She doesn’t sugar coat. If we suck, she’ll tell us we’re really bad and then she’ll help us fix it, help us get to a level where we're tolerable and then better than tolerable," Christa Francois said. "I know we've had so much progress because the beginning of the show with the choreography and stuff, we were all like falling over our feet and she’s helped us. And the rest of the production crew has helped us come together and grow into what we are now, and that progress is all thanks to our production team and our cast and our pit, everyone involved."
"I graduated in 2012 and this stage is where I really felt at home," Fletcher said. "I was a band kid, and I didn't do chorus until I was a senior in high school. I did it in middle school, but I on a whim joined the musical my freshman year. We did "Hello Dolly" and it dragged me into the black hole that is theater."
Fletcher is joined by two other South Portland grads: Aaron Samuelson, who is the show's producer, and Nick Sutton, who is taking on the role of music director.
"I call it a full circle moment," Sutton said. "I did a lot here and it's fun and really interesting to be on the other side of the piano this time around."
"I graduated 3 1/2 years ago, in 2019, and there hasn't been a show since then," Matthews said. "It feels like a long time to me, and you know, I can't imagine what it feels like for these kids. Some of them have never even been in a show before. So, it's been awesome to get the kids re-engaged and give them an experience that we loved so much. It's really awesome to be a part of that."
Being back together has felt like one big family reunion for the cast and crew. But they said what's more exciting is finally being back under the stage lights and being able to share their love for the arts with the classmates and community.
"High schoolers can do incredible things when they're given the opportunity," Fletcher said. "We push these kids really hard in all aspects of the show to make them better and we hold them to high expectations because we know that they can do it. So I think having the community see that and see that these are our future leaders and our future community members and this is what they are doing on the stage and how they're choosing to spend their free time here on a stage in an auditorium at a high school."
"I think it's also an opportunity for the kids on the stage to inspire the younger kids in the South Portland schools and in any school district to aspire to get on stage when they get to high school," the show's choreographer, Kristin Sutton, said. "Like, 'Oh look, I can't wait to get to South Portland High School so I can be in a show' and just foster their love for the arts."
"We've talked a lot about traditions, and you know, it is such a big part of the South Portland community," Matthews said. "We talk about the kids missing it but the community has missed it just as much I think. There are people who have gone to every single show since the inception and they've been on a hiatus too so it's good to get everybody back and I hope they feel that sense of tradition as well."
Tickets for the show can be purchased online. A limited number of tickets will be available at the door before each show.
Opening night is this Friday. The show will run Friday through Sunday and the following Friday and Saturday. There is both a matinee and an evening performance on Saturday.