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‘They love to be on stage’

Students at two Medford schools gear up for spring musicals

Courtesy of Kirsten Braatz
Haines/Medford Memorial Middle School students are ready to perform “Finding Nemo Jr.” Friday through Sunday.

Students at St. Mary of the Lakes School and Haines/Medford Memorial Middle School are gearing up for their spring musicals.

The Sun caught up with Emily Cheney, theater director at St. Mary, and Kirsten Braatz, theater director at Memorial Middle, to discuss the productions.

The students at St. Mary will present “The Wizard of Oz Youth Edition” from Friday through Sunday in the multipurpose room at the school, 196 Route 70. Cheney’s team includes Kimberly Tabler, who oversees costumes; producer Kaitlin Hartmann; musical director Jessica Marcinkowski; choreographer Natalie Stairiker; assistant costumer Julie Hofmann; and Julia Cappiello, media and program coordinator.

“We have 47 kids involved including stage crew,” Cheney said, noting “energy is boundless.” “They love to do it, they love to be on stage.”

Cheney has been leading the theater program – whose students are fourth to eighth graders – for six years.

“Our youngest is 9 and our oldest is 14,” she noted. “This is a big rebuilding year for us. We have a lot of fourth graders this year and only five eighth graders.”

Annual auditions take place before Thanksgiving break and rehearsals hit the ground running in January.

Photo by Kathy Chang/The Sun
St. Mary of the Lakes School students will perform “The Wizard of Oz Youth Edition.”

“We accept everyone who auditions,” Cheney explained. “For a lot of the kids, this is their first year on stage and it’s a big deal for them.”

The students at Haines/Medford Memorial Middle School will present “Finding Nemo Jr.” – also Friday through Sunday – at the school, 55 Mill St.

Kirsten Braatz leads as director and choreographer, with her team of Abby Mosher, assistant director; Mark Dishong, musical director; Maggie Clark, choreographer and lead costumer; and Erica Cox, student director and choreographer.

“Auditions took place the second week of February and rehearsals started the last week of February,” Braatz said. “We have about 46 students participating in the cast as actors, singers and dancers and about 18 students behind the scenes as our stage crew, who have helped with creating props and will be helping with lights, sound, and set moving during each performance.”

The production consists of kids from sixth to eighth grade.

“Working with middle-school students for a production like ‘Finding Nemo Jr.’ can be incredibly rewarding,” Braatz observed. “Their enthusiasm and energy bring a special vibrancy to the rehearsals and performances. Additionally, it’s a fantastic opportunity to foster teamwork, build confidence, and unleash creativity as they bring beloved characters to life on stage.

“Plus, seeing their growth and development throughout the process is truly remarkable.”

 “Finding Nemo, Jr.” is the school’s first large-scale production since 2022, when COVID forced the school’s Panther Players to do a staged recording of “Once On This Island” with a live audience.

“(This was) not ideal,” Braatz acknowledged, “but at least the kids got to perform. With a change in directors in 2023, the Panther Players performed a musical review, ‘Raise Your Voice,’ with small and large ensemble numbers of various Broadway shows.”

Haines’ teacher Michael Del Rossi has directed the school’s shows since 2007 and dubbed the performers Panther Players before Braatz came on. She previously worked in the South Jersey area as a director with local theater companies. 

“I was approached by Mrs. Brooke Farrow, the Haines’ sixth grade principal, to see if I’d consider putting together a musical with Haines/Memorial Middle School,” she recalled. “I was honored to be asked and am excited to be working with these amazing kids.”

For more information about the shows, visit the websites for St. Mary of the Lakes School at https://www.smlschool.org and Haines/Medford Memorial Middle School at https://www.medford.k12.nj.us/

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