Howard County high school plays ready to hook audiences

Brandon Dial has a big hook to fill. The River Hill High School senior is playing Captain Hook, one the most infamous villains in children's literature, in the school's musical performance of "Peter Pan" that opens Friday, Nov. 1.

Physically, he fits the part. His tall, athletic frame agilely moves across the stage as he rehearses fight, dance, singing and even flying scenes while wearing a shiny metal hook on his left hand.

But his character's persona requires a little more thought, Dial said.

Hook is both a "scary man" and a "skittish, afraid man," he said.

"It's two completely opposite ends of the spectrum that have to be combined to create this iconic character that children have come to know and love," he said, during a recent rehearsal break.

Across Howard County, students like Dial are memorizing lines, delving into back stories, perfecting accents, trying on costumes and building sets, all in preparation for their school's annual fall play.

This year, schools are performing a mix of classic plays, new favorites and musicals, including "Arsenic and Old Lace" at Marriotts Ridge High School, "The Odd Couple" at Howard High School and "The Little Mermaid" at Glenelg High School.

"There's wonderful theater around the county," said Sally Livingston, theater teacher at Marriotts Ridge High School. "The chance to see kids in these plays is a great opportunity."

At River Hill, school officials selected Peter Pan because it is a family-friendly play loved by everyone, said Pam Land, director of theatre arts.

Still, any large-scale production has its challenges.

"The most challenging part of any performance with high school students is just getting it rehearsed to a point where everyone is confident, comfortable and ready," Land said.

More than 100 students are participating in the performance, including about 20 county elementary and middle school students who auditioned for the play's younger roles.

And then there's the flying. In Peter Pan, several of the characters fly across the stage in the first and third acts.

The school hired D2 Flying, a Hanover-based flying effects company, to rig flying equipment and then teach parents, students and staff how to use it, Land said.

"You want to make sure it's done safely, it looks good and is fun for the audience," she said.

To accurately portray their characters, many of the students, including sophomore Amanda Yuan who plays Peter Pan and senior Hannah Floyd who plays Wendy, also learned a British accent.

In addition, Yuan changed the way she moves to be less teenage girl and more like the youthful Peter Pan.

"I have to walk like a boy with my chest out and my chin in to look more confident," she said. "I square off my hips and walk with a wider stance."

At Glenelg High School, more than 50 high school students and 12 junior cast members ages 5 to 11 are participating in "The Little Mermaid," a musical based on the animated Disney movie of the same name.

"Students have been begging me to do this for years," said Sue Miller, theater director and theater arts teacher at Glenelg High School. "They just love bringing one of their favorite stories to life. They grew up with this."

To simulate the musical's underwater scenes, cast members are wearing "Heelys," sneakers with wheels on the soles. They also are wearing intricate costumes based on the musical's Broadway production, Miller said.

Other high schools, like Marriotts Ridge, are sticking with the classics. For years, students in Livingston's Drama I class have studied "Arsenic and Old Lace," a dark comedy where a drama critic's aunts cheerfully poison older men.

"It's an unusual story, and kids get a kick out of it," she said.

This year, the school is moving it out of the classroom and onto to the stage. More than 60 students are involved with the production.

While the Brewster sisters, played by seniors Gabby Nagle and Ryann Marchetti, are the main characters, their 13 victims make comedic appearances throughout the performance in zombie-like makeup.

Howard High School also is performing a comedic classic with "The Odd Couple," a story of two mismatched roommates. But this performance comes with a twist. Students will perform the male and female versions of the play on alternating nights. All actors use the same set and many of the same props, said Laura Tschirgi, theater teacher at Howard High School.

"It is fascinating to see how each cast of student actors have interpreted their roles differently and developed two very distinct but equally powerful and hilarious performances," she said.

The cast and crew for both Howard plays include more than 25 students.

At River Hill, Dial said he's looking forward to opening night. He has spent months rehearsing scenes, practicing choreographed sword fights and even making his voice fluctuate between a deep, baritone to a nasal, high pitch, all to bring Captain Hook to life.

Still, his performance will be bittersweet. Dial will leave high school theater behind this spring when he graduates. But the acting bug? He'll take that with him.

"It can't cut me off," said Dial, channeling his inner captain. "I'm hooked."

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