Abigail Paxton has a very specific vision for the Mercedes Edwards Theater as it prepares to host Bear Stage’s presentation of “Catch Me If You Can: The Musical” for the next couple weeks.
Runway-themed aisleways will lead patrons inside to the main stage, while aircraft marshal-dressed students help guide them along their way — illuminated wands and all. Audience members may even encounter a Transportation Security Administration that they, well, can actually tolerate.
It’s all part of the Buchanan High School drama teacher and director’s theory for putting on a fantastic show: “It starts here, Kaitlyn,” Paxton explained to student Kaitlyn Ehresman, who leads a team of her peers to decorate the theater’s lobby area. “It starts here.”
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On Thursday, Nov. 10, Buchanan High School’s esteemed drama department, Bear Stage, opens its six-day run at the Clovis performance space, hoping to capitalize on the school’s recent positive momentum of rallying community support for theater in our area.
“I really strive to shift the culture toward accepting performing arts, and getting the word out there,” Paxton said. “With our big show last year, we were just shy of the record in attendance sales and now there is a buzz in the Buchanan area and it’s becoming ‘the thing’ to audition for the play.”
Under her three-year tenure at this post, Bear Stage has performed two popular and family-friendly shows for its main stage musical, including 2014’s “The Wizard of Oz” and “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” last year. But her sights were already set on staging this fall’s much more mature and smaller production two years ago, taking note of her younger students’ de veloping talents early on that is necessary for carrying a musical comedy of this caliber.
“Catch Me If You Can: The Musical,” adapted from DreamWorks Pictures’ 2002 film of the same name, follows the biographical story of Frank Abagnale Jr. as he successfully posed as a pilot, doctor and a lawyer before catching the attention of FBI agent, Carl Hanratty. The big-personality conman’s journey showcases themes of following one’s dreams — without getting caught, of course — and of self-acceptance.
The heavy male casting, powerful vocals and intense dance sequences of the show may pose a challenge for most high school drama departments, but Paxton knew her students were well-equipped to handle all of its requirements.
“I think about generally what my talent looks like, what my kids’ skill set looks like and then I go in that direction,” she said. “This is a heavy male show with lots of dancing, and I’ve got really strong dancers.”
When auditions rolled around in early September, senior Nathan Fennacy didn’t have to think twice about showing up. The longtime performer, who snagged the lead role of Frank Abagnale Jr., has been a part of Bear Stage’s program since he was a freshman, and the experience gained through participating is far more valuable than the title on the marquee.
Lucky for Fennacy and his classmates, “Catch Me If You Can: The Musical” has all you could want from a show — and then some.
“Not a lot of people know this musical, so they have no expectations,” he said. “The freshness of it is going to have them come in like, ‘What is this?’ and then we knock them off their feet. It’s a really great musical, with great music and dancing and I think they’re going to love it.”
Dance ensemble member and character “Betty,” Abby Huntress, was also unfamiliar with the show. But it was the small size of the musical that was one of its biggest draws, allowing the tight-knit group of 40 performers to constantly elevate one another through a shared commitment of putting out excellence.
“We’ve never had a musical with this much dancing, and it’s cool to see people progress and get that much better,” she said. “Everyone stepped up to the plate and made it work.”
It’s the start of technical rehearsals for “Catch Me If You Can: The Musical,” and there’s a sense of organized chaos as the show begins its final stages of fine-tuning. Some students are on stage, rehearsing the choreography for a specific number, while others are completing the stitching on costumes or are reading through the musical’s script.
Paxton oversees the majority of the production, adeptly juggling roles of director, costume designer, co-choreographer and prop designer with a dose of confidence and humor.
Clovis Unified School District prides itself on its professionalism, and that extends from the Mercedes Edwards Theater’s staff that regularly builds the shows’ sets, a blended and supportive performing arts program to the student actors themselves.
Paxton keeps a vigilant eye on the monitor as she watches the dancers review the material on stage from the theater’s office. The students are completely self-guided, following the vocal cues of a fellow dancer as they move through the routine in synchronized motions.
“I have a very strong group of kids. A lot of them take it very seriously, they like what they’re doing and they like to do well,” she said.
“I just want them to have a good time, and walk away from the show thinking, ‘How on earth did we do that?’ I want them to think they’re the best, because they really are the best.”
“Catch Me If You Can: The Musical”
When: 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 17-19; 2 p.m. matinee on Nov. 19
Where: Mercedes Edwards Theater at 902 5th St., Clovis
Tickets: $12 for adults and $10 for students
▪ NOTE: Parents should bring children at their own discretion, with suitability for the show’s content recommended for children ages 11 and up.