A cricket with an ear and a talent for music, a family of first generation immigrants from Italy and a couple of unsuited friends by the name of Tucker and Harry ask all elementary school students in Blount County what an adventure book it is and they can make it spring up.
This is The Cricket in Times Square, the book selected for this year's One Book Blitz project in local schools. Clarissa Feldt, drama teacher at Maryville High School, also knew her well. She decided to take the book, adapt a play to her students and offer it to everyone in the community.
Public performances will take place Thursday through Saturday, March 5-7, at the Maryville High auditorium. Tickets are available at the door.
The book was not publicly announced to school students in the city of Maryville until a few weeks ago, and Feldt said she was not going to spoil the surprise. It did mean, however, that she had to organize auditions for a play that the actors weren't even aware of at the time. She used creative solutions.
Like playing a game she called The Wheel of Accents. Times Square Cricket takes place in New York, so students should be able to succeed. The family at the center of history, the Bellini, is Italian.
I added other accents, like Russian, to divert them, said Feldt. In addition, this teacher also made them read her script, but changed the names in case they could recognize the book.
Fast turnaround time
Once the book was announced in school systems, the students went into rehearsal fairly quickly. They had about four weeks to build sets, learn lines, acquire costumes and bring the story to life.
Times Square Cricket is the story of Chester, whose love for foie gras blew him up in a picnic basket in his hometown of Connecticut. When he finally emerges, he was taken aboard a train. He goes down to busy Times Square in New York.
Chester befriends a mouse named Tucker and Harry the cat, who both live in a drain in the busy Times Square tube station. Chester becomes like a pet for the Bellini family, including Mario, the young boy who helps his parents with their newsstand.
As each adapts to this new dynamic, he quickly discovers the musical talents of Chester. His chirps sound like classical music, and the busy people of Times Square stop to listen.
The book, written by George Selden, won the Newbery Honor in 1961.
There are some difficulties that Chester has to overcome. Like Mama Bellini's fury when Chester eats some of his hard-earned paper money from the newsstand. At a party later, Chester, Harry and Tucker accidentally set fire to the kiosk. Mama Bellini wants to get rid of Chester.
But when Chester tweets her favorite song, she changes her mind. The group begins to realize that Chester has a perfect memory for music.
Eva Counts plays Mama Bellini. She is the only character who sees no use in Chester and blames him for the misfortunes of his family. Counts said that Mama softens in the end.
Counts admits that creating an Italian accent was not an easy task for her. I was born and raised in the South, she explained. She also said that she was not familiar with the book when Feldt was finally able to reveal it. Counts aunt is a librarian, so she got a copy of this young actor.
One of the other main roles is played by Broady Sloan, a senior. It is Tucker the mouse. Honestly, Sloan said he was not sure why he was given this role.
It's something I never would have imagined for me, he says with a laugh. Throwing someone big and strong like a mouse is a little weird.
Sloan played soccer for Maryville. He said he had things in common with Tucker, however. Both are a bit mischievous and also like to eat.
He still remembers the pieces he was in at Fort Craig School when he was in elementary school. It is a love of performance that he has maintained.
As the cat owner herself, Alex Gabehart felt more than confident in the role of Harry the cat. She said he was very refined, or thinks he is. Harry also thinks he's smarter than he really is.
Just like a cat, said Gabehart.
In this production, Gabehart also has a singing part and a beautiful voice, said his fellow actors.
In addition to public performances, these students will also organize class shows for the youngest this week. Counts said she remembers coming to high school and seeing plays years ago. It was huge, she said.
The orchestra adds an element
Feldt knew she also needed music to showcase the talent of Chesters. She chose a talent very close to the home of the Maryville High Orchestra. The group performed and allowed Feldt to record some of their music for the play. It was the right decision, she said.
The counts agreed, saying: Have you ever heard our orchestra play? They are phenomenal.
In all, there are 27 actors. Others in production include Zach Legaux like Mario, Eric Magee like Papa Bellini, Madison Cox like Mickey and Seth Goins like M. Smedley. Chester is played by Hallie Boring. Nolan Topor has been interpreted as Paul, Rachel Hastings is the television reporter and the police are interpreted by Peyton Schroeder and Cooper Woods. Others are part of large crowd and metro scenes.
Feldts' adaptation of The Cricket to Times Square will take approximately 45 minutes.
Ultimately, Chester makes the decision to return to Connecticut, the home he loves. Counts, Sloan and Gabehart said they like Theres' message nowhere like home, as well as the underlying theme of the adventure.
This week, rehearsals make long days for these students and their teacher. Nobody complains. They all said that children and adults alike would love this performance.
Feldts' favorite thing about this piece is that his actors were also set designers, set builders and projectionists.
They build it and then act, she says. I feel like this is the best way to learn, honestly, just get up and do it.
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