The Appleton North High School theater program is no stranger to excellence, and with this year’s musical “Mary Poppins” opening tonight, North can add another outstanding production to its excellent repertoire. The show, complete with tongue-twisting musical numbers, remarkable dancing and elaborate sets, illustrates what North does best — wowing audiences and the theater community.
Recognized state and nationwide as among the best of the best — they’ve received the top award at the Wisconsin High School Theater Festival for the past 16 years, and were deemed the “best in the Midwest” by Stage Directions magazine — North theater pushes boundaries each year with innovative and demanding productions. North has tackled numerous productions that are often considered to be too difficult vocally and technically for high school students — such as “Phantom of the Opera” and “Sweeney Todd” — and even productions not normally available for high schools. North was the first non-professional theatre company to perform “Aida” in the state, one of the first high schools to perform “Spamalot” before it was officially released, and one of the first high schools to do the full Broadway version of “Les Miserables,” says North’s theater director, Ron Parker.
When asked how the program has been able to achieve all these accomplishments, Parker had a rather simple answer. “I think any successful program, whether it be in the arts, athletics or academics comes down to offering opportunity, building enthusiasm, instilling passion and not being afraid to take risks — oh, and then sweat,” he says. And, it seems to happen in that respective order.
Now in his 15th year at North, Parker noted that the program he arrived to was much smaller than it is now; only 11 people were in the musical the year before Parker began, while this year’s production of “Mary Poppins” will have a cast and crew of more than 100 students. Parker reached out to students and realized that the greater opportunity for involvement there was, the more students wanted to be involved. In addition to branching out to a bigger cast, orchestra and crew, Parker says, “Introducing double casting — a concept that was new to schools in the Fox Valley — provided even more opportunities for involvement and encouraged more students to give theater a try.” Double casting allows more than one student to have the same major role in a production.
After getting more students involved, Parker was able to keep students enthusiastic by choosing exciting shows. “Over the years, I’ve tried to build enthusiasm by choosing works that are new or cutting edge, which gets students excited and provides them with a sense of uniqueness and special purpose,” he says, referencing “Aida” and “Spamalot” as examples. “I really enjoy doing something that hasn’t been done at the high school level before. Such shows get kids excited and provide challenges that bring out their best.”
Though some students in the Fox Valley do open enroll to the Appleton North school district because of the reputable theater program, North doesn’t recruit talented students. The key to the outstanding talent of North’s performers lies within the challenge. “The kids at North are no more talented than kids in other schools, but I think the difference is in their desire and willingness to commit to the path of excellence and their passion for going places theatrically that others have not,” Parker says. “I really believe that students will rise to the level of the bar you set for them — and usually go even higher than expected. The trick is to provide them with the opportunity and then allow them to soar.”
In addition to the difficulty level of the productions Parker puts on at North, the program also has to deal with logistical limitations, making this year’s production of “Mary Poppins” even more magical. The theater itself is a very small space; it lacks an orchestra pit, a fly house to switch in painted backdrops, and wing space for the large sets they construct to make up for the inability to use drops. This forces a lot of creativity on Parker’s and the students’ part. “Despite these and other difficulties or perhaps partly because of them, the students who make up ‘Mary Poppins’ have risen to the task. They have worked long and hard to prepare a show of which they all can be proud,” Parker said, iterating that the audience will not be disappointed. “They can expect lots of magical moments—from Mary flying over the audience to Bert dancing upside down over the stage. They’ll see huge sets and wonderful costumes and hear some of the most iconic music ever written for film and theater sung by very talented young performers.”
These performers have definitely risen to the challenge of putting on a spectacular production of an already fantastical show. After months of preparation and rehearsing, the North students are ready for the next few weeks of performances. Catch the show at 7 p.m. tonight, March 13-14 and 19-21, and at 12:30 p.m. on March 14-15 and 21-22. Tickets can be reserved by calling the box office at 997-3994 or going online to appletonnorththeatre.com.