Middle Village’s class of stars

By Kevin Zimmerman

It may be a 40-minute subway ride from Middle Village to the heart of Broadway, but for many PS 87 students it could easily be a 40-year journey.

Hoping to make the trip a whole lot shorter, the city’s Cultural After School Adventures program provides students with a glimpse of the Great White Way with Inside Broadway, which brings professional performers to schools to help the children mount their own productions.

This year’s PS 87 revue focuses on rock and pop songs and requires the students to memorize lyrics as well as dance steps for six different numbers.

For Ashley Kessler, 12, who is appearing in her third show, the project is a way to combine her passions for singing, dancing and acting in a fun way. She was eager to sign on as a fourth-grader.

“It really looked interesting to me,” Ashley said. “My favorite part is making friends with the other people in the play. The hardest part is learning the choreography. You just have to get used to it.”

At last week’s rehearsal, the troupe of about a dozen girls and one boy ran through the dance steps set to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” rock anthem.

Because of the unusually snowy winter, the twice-a-week sessions have happened much less frequently. Two rows of young performers line up on the school’s small, third-floor stage and wait for their cues to begin.

“We are really behind,” Director Braddon Mehrten told the cast. “We have to focus really, really hard — otherwise it will be a disaster.”

Mehrten, who has been part of PS 87’s Inside Broadway program for the last five years, brings decades of performance experience to his role as teacher/mentor.

After relocating to New York City from Northern California, Mehrten started hitting the audition rounds. After only two months, he snagged his first role, which led to national tours of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables.” Eventually life on the road lost its appeal and he opted to return to New York and to find work teaching the next generation of performers.

“I wanted to stay home,” Mehrten said. “Now, I get the best of both worlds.”

Mehrten sees his role as more than someone who teaches kids how to hit the right notes or nail the perfect dance step. He believes performing helps open new ways of thinking for the students, and in turn helps make them more well-rounded individuals.

“It’s great when the light bulb goes off and the kids see there is something beyond school that can help them learn,” Mehrten said. “I also love it when a teacher comes up to me and says, ‘I had no idea that they had that in them.’”

First-time cast members Diane Santos, 11, and Amanda Hedlund, 11, thrive on performing and both sixth-graders figured the CASA program would provide the right venue.

“I love singing, dancing and acting,” Amanda said. “I thought this would be perfect.”

Diane, who grew up performing skits and songs at home with her parents, decided the Inside Broadway show would expose her to more rigorous voice training and put her in front of a brand new audience. She is also having a good time.

“I really like Mr. B,” Diane said. “He is really funny and a good teacher.”

With the show set for this Thursday, Mr. B, aka Mehrten, gently cracks the whip when the group reconvenes for another “Don’t Stop Believing” run through. The choreography requires the students to punch at the air to emphasis the music’s beat. They also have to ensure their gestures occur in unison to maintain cohesion. After the first routine, it’s clear none of the performers are bringing the right level of energy to the step.

“Without the strength you look uninvolved,” Mehrten said. “You look a little silly.”

Each city Council member receives $100,000 to fund five CASA programs each year.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) uses her money for Inside Broadway at PS 87 and PS 113, as well as Queens Theatre projects at two other schools and an Intrepid Museum program at one location. Crowley is a strong supporter of CASA and what it provides the children, her Deputy Chief of Staff Kate Mooney said.

“A lot of these children are not going to get the Broadway experience,” Mooney said. “This gives them a cultural outlet not only on a big city level, but on the school level as well. If you can tickle that fancy, this might be a door-opener for a future career in the city’s thriving theater business.”

Contact news editor Kevin Zimmerman at (718) 260-4541 or by e-mail at kzimmerman@cnglocal.com.

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