For 32 years, Barry Palmer has directed the musical at Stevens Forest Elementary School in Columbia.
Now, the curtain is closing on the physical education teacher's career — he plans to retire at the end of the school year — and Palmer wanted his final act to be a memorable one.
As such, students at Stevens Forest are in the midst of their performances of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." After two shows for their younger classmates last week, the fourth- and fifth-graders are ready to take the stage Wednesday, Dec. 19 and Thursday, Dec. 20, at 7 p.m. at Oakland Mills High School.
The performances, which are open to the public, cost $5 for adults and $2 for students. In his years at Stevens Forest — he was there where the school opened in 1972 — Palmer said the shows keep getting bigger and better.
"The quality of this improves every year," Palmer said. "And what better way to learn than the theater? They've got the music, they've got the narrative, they've got the movement."
About 175 students take part in the musical. Third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students are in the chorus, and fourth- and fifth-graders make up two mixed-grade casts — Team (Bob) Cratchit and Team (Ebenezer) Scrooge, named after the main characters in the story. One cast performs one night, while the other performs the next.
Palmer said accolades are also due to the team of about 50 parent and school volunteers, who came together six days out of the week to build and paint sets, create costumes and help the students with the lines, songs and dances.
"It's fun," said Tanner Malinowski, a fifth-grader who plays Ebenezer Scrooge, the old miser who learns to change his ways after being visited by three Christmas spirits. "You get to learn your lines and see your costumes get made. ... Scrooge is mean because he doesn't like Christmas, and he only thinks of himself."
Jillian Armstead, a fifth-grader who plays the Ghost of Christmas Past, said she also liked the costumes and learning her lines. She had a message for any other student ever thinking about participating in a play or musical.
"Kids should try this," she said. "You don't want to miss out on something like this."
Palmer said he hoped the students learned the lessons in Dickens' classic story.
"People can change," Palmer said. "This (story) is an adventure in changing one's entire perspective and entire outlook on life, and what life is about. Life is about relationships."
Since Stevens Forest first opened its doors, much has changed for the school, Palmer said; the student body is more diverse and there are more students in need. But they continue to be brought together by the annual musical.
Some musicals have been repeated since Palmer began directing the students, including "Hansel and Gretel," "The Wizard of Oz," "How the West Was Really Won," "Of Mice and Mozart," The Snow Queen" and "Let's Hear it for the Heroes.".
One show has been performed at Stevens Forest four times during Palmer's leadership: "Electric Sunshine Man," the children' musical based on the life of Thomas Edison. There's a reason for that, Palmer said.
"There's a huge song, the culminating, ending piece of the entire show," he said. "There's a line in that song, 'Nothing is impossible if you try.' I wanted every child that I came in contact with to hear that message. Most every child who has come to this school has heard that song."