By Kevin Zimmerman
After more than half an hour practicing the same dance steps, choreographer Mim Paquin gathers a dozen young actors center stage for a quick refresher in the art of musical theater performance.
“With choreography, it’s not hurry, hurry, hurry to get to the next step,” she said. “You’ve got to keep track of the count. You have to know where the music is otherwise you are going to look like awkward people.”
Naturally, Paquin’s goal is to help her young performers look their best when they step onto the stage at St. Luke’s Church, 85 Greenway South, in the Gingerbread Player’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” April 13 to April 21.
For more than 40 years, this Forest Hills Gardens community theater has provided Queens children and teenagers — along with a few grown-ups — a chance to stride the boards and get a peek into the world of the performing arts.
“In the spring we always do a musical that heavily involves children,” said Director Jean Tessier. “It’s about getting the kids exposed to theater and getting them on stage and a chance to shine.”
That is one of the things Kayla Thomsen, 12, who is returning for her fifth show with the group, relishes about her time on stage.
“I personally like it because you can be standing in the background, but they don’t make you feel like you’re in the background,” said Kayla.
The award-winning musical from the early 1960s is a parody of the hysteria surrounding Elvis Presley’s induction into the Army. In the musical version, the Elvis character, “Conrad Birdie,” heads to Sweet Apple, Ohio to bestow one final kiss on an adoring fan. Naturally, chaos ensues.
And for last Saturday’s marathon-rehearsal of the “Lot of Living to Do” number, Kayla and scene partner Nitin Varghese, 14, remain front and center for a good chunk of the song. Nitin plays the part of nerd “Harvey Johnson,” who egged on by “Conrad Birdie’s” carpe diem anthem, grabs Kayla’s character for a spin around the dance floor as the rest of the cast cheers them on.
As the two young performers shake, rattle and roll to the beat, Paquin reminds them to have fun but also to stay in character.
“The kids are fantastic,” said Paquin. “Everything you say, they absorb like a sponge. You want to share these nuggets so they have a good experience.”
It’s worked for Nitin who is also returning for his fifth show with the Gingerbread Players.
“It’s fun,” said Nitin. “They’re like my family. I like acting and having fun with them.”
The Gingerbread Player’s family isn’t limited to St. Luke’s members or just residents of this corner of Forest Hills. Anyone can audition for either the spring musical or the fall show, which tend to focus on older casts for productions like “Arsenic and Old Lace” or a Shakespearean comedy. Throughout the year, St. Luke’s stages several concerts featuring musicians who perform everything from operatic arias to Elton John’s play list.
“We try to keep it diverse,” said Tessier. “Our goal is to have everyone in the community find us. Once they find us, they’ll keep coming back.”
That also goes for Tessier’s crew of actors, who she characterizes as “seriously committed amateur actors” ranging in age from 8 to 80.
Fresh Meadows resident David Duryea falls somewhere in the middle of that demographic. Duryea may spend his days toiling in the St. John’s University Financial Aid Office, but always kept his desire to perform flickering. After tackling a small part in last year’s production of “Annie,” Duryea steps into the lead role of “Albert Peterson” — played by Dick Van Dyke in the original Broadway and Hollywood versions.
“I’ve never played a lead in my life,” said Duryea. “I guess now I’m in the major leagues.”
The big-time is exactly where Shannon O’Rourke and Becki Santana, both 16, have their sights set. The two girls, currently enrolled at LaGuardia Performing Arts High School, share the juvenile female lead role of “Kim MacAfee.” Shannon, who lives in the neighborhood and attends services at St. Luke’s, grew up performing in the Gingerbread Player’s shows.
“This has been a great experience,” said Shannon. “I love community theater and I love seeing the younger kids who are really into it.”
Tessier also likes to focus on the younger actors in her theaterical family.
“It brings me tremandous joy seeing the kids when they get it,” said Tessier. “It’s exciting to see that lightbulb go off.”
The Gingerbread Players present “Bye Bye Birdie” at St. Luke’s Church, 85 Greenway South, Forest Hills, Saturday, April 13; Sunday, April 14; Friday, April 19; Saturday, April 20; and Sunday, April 21. Contact (718) 268-7772 for more information.
Reach news editor Kevin Zimmerman at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4541.