Keep the Magic: A lighthearted tale that radiates youthful energy

This weekend Tyee Middle School in Bellevue, WA presented Keep the Magic, an original musical written by local playwright Gretchen O’Halloran with music by Dianne Everson. Keep the Magic tells the story of a close-knit circus troupe, with many colorful characters of the “family” who support each other in this unusual life they lead, traveling and performing together.

From the moment the show opens with the circus in full swing, energy literally springs from the stage as dancers and acrobats leap and tumble across it. Over the course of the following vignettes and musical numbers, we meet the various members of the circus and see how they love one another as a family.

The central conflict of the play revolves around a young trapeze artist, Tina (Haley Montelaro), who wants to explore life outside the circus and pursue fortune and fame in her own right. Estelle (Izzie Fatland), nurtured Tina in place of the mother she lost at a young age. Fatland’s sweet voice was just the thing to balance the humor and implied tragedy of the expository song, “You Were Born in a Circus Trunk,” sung simply without becoming saccharine. A background vignette of young Tina (Varenna Mechling) dancing with her father during the song was a charming touch.

The show was evenly cast with moments for many of the principal characters to shine. Bubba (Conner Anderson) was funny and personable as the Ringmaster, believable as the family man who wants to keep everyone together. Cabot (Noah Saqallah) oozes charisma as the promoter who attempts to lure Tina into a life of super-stardom. He is a total ham, showing great physicality and comedic timing. As Tina the trapeze artist, Montelaro’s grace as a dancer showed through. Ivana the lion tamer (Lucy Brown) effectively used a Russian accent as she led her pack of dancing lions. Stubbs the clown (Taiga Morishita) brought an endearing groundedness and sensibility to the circus family. Louella (Sophia Mabale Klenetsky) seethed with money-grubbing jealousy as she slinked through the speakeasy. And the three Equestrian ladies (Catherine Zhu, Sabrina Lim, and Kya Baker) brought playful pizzazz and excellent pitch to their barbershop trios peppered throughout.

The shining showpiece, though, was “Hot Fudge Mama,” featuring Chloe Pucher as Frieda the strong woman. In a stroke of casting brilliance that opened up a lot of opportunities for physical humor, Pucher is a tiny wisp of an actress, making for a hilarious visual when she carries the huge barbell weight across the stage. Pucher’s voice was clearly the strongest of the show, with a surprising vocal maturity that you seldom see in a middle school production. This girl has professional potential if she continues to work hard and studies with the right teachers… one to watch for sure.

The ensemble was engaged and showed great energy and character. With a cast of 80 middle-schoolers, director Kelly Mechling avoided the “singing wallpaper” pitfall common to large ensembles, keeping the story moving at a brisk pace and minimizing opportunities for the action to drag. Choreographer Emily Elzea also made great use of the considerable dance talents of the cast, creating lively dances that came to the forefront at appropriate times, and complemented the singers without distracting from them.

And finally, a round of applause to the orchestra of young musicians from Tyee Middle School directed by David Drassal. My seatmates and I were so impressed that we were checking the program and asking each other, “Are those middle schoolers!?” at intermission. While there were some pitch issues, they were rhythmically solid and consistent enough for the singers to count on. In an era of canned accompaniments, a live orchestra (especially at this age) is refreshing. Well done.

Everson’s music was well-written in an age-appropriate vocal range, with songs channeling vaudeville and 1920s speakeasy jazz that the middle-school cast was able to capably and confidently perform. O’Halloran’s script was funny, and as a playwright writing for a school-age cast, she succeeded in creating an ensemble of characters that each have a moment to shine. Rather than having a single dominant lead, Keep the Magic gives equal stage time to a wide variety of characters. This is wonderful for budding drama students, since the principal actors all get a scene or a song to actually chew on rather than a mere cameo line here and there.

This major strength also presents a challenge, though; dividing up the stage time among so many characters can make it difficult to keep a cohesive narrative thread while also creating fully-formed characters. My impression is that a lot of this character depth is developed during the songs, and unfortunately on the night that I attended this particular production, microphone audio issues made a lot of the lyrics (and even some dialogue) unintelligible as they were swallowed up by the large space of Newport High School’s auditorium. Without that context, some of the characters came across as one-dimensional and some key plot points weren’t clear. But the show was still enjoyable, nonetheless.

Overall, Keep the Magic is a fun and lighthearted show that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Its message is appropriate to an age group seeking the independence that comes with growing up. Sometimes you want to leave the comforts of home and strike out to explore something new, simply so that you can appreciate what you already had when you come home – family.