Homer Alaska - Schools

Story last updated at 4:27 PM on Wednesday, December 14, 2011

All aboard for some Christmas magic

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff writer


Photographer: McKibben Jackinsky, Homer NewsPhoto provided

Mackenzie Ormond, Iona Reutov and Chad Morris serve hot chocolate with a smile.

Music, costumes and lots of action marked McNeil Canyon Elementary School's Dec. 8 performance of "The Polar Express."

Then there were the smiles. Hard to miss the smiles of more than 120 kindergarten through sixth-grade students as they sang, danced and acted their way through the production based on a book of the same name written by Chris Van Allsburg.

"They did look like they were having fun," said Debbie Piper, McNeil Canyon teacher that directed the performance, assisted by Melon Purcell and Mo Wilkinson. Lenore Swanson was the musical director and accompanist.

It also was hard to miss the play's message. From the time the Polar Express chugged its way into the school's multipurpose room — with the pajama-clad passengers singing, "All aboard. Are you coming? This will be the night you'll never forget" — to Santa awarding the first gift of Christmas, to the applause of the audience, the repeated message was, "Believe is what it's really all about."

Piper reflected that thought in her certainty of the students' abilities.

"Folks say kids can't sing and dance at the same time, but they can do anything if you give them confidence and practice," said Piper.

Rehearsals began early in November, with speaking parts and the roles of Polar Express passengers going to members of the school's drama club. Other students sang and danced in pieces giving them opportunities to be friendly beasts of the forest, gold stars twinkling against the dark night sky, shimmering northern lights, twirling snowflakes, jingling bells, quick-stepping servers bearing trays of hot chocolate and reminders of the magic that accompanies the holiday season.

This is the third time the school has presented "The Polar Express."

"It's done on a cycle of every seven years so none of the children in the school are in it twice," said Piper.

Some of the costumes were brought back to life after being used in past performances. The elaborate reindeer outfits needed a little polishing and new sets of antlers, but otherwise looked new. Some costumes, such as the twirling snowflakes, were made by the students who wore them. New this year were costumes and props used in the hot chocolate jig, but the effort involved in making them and the response they drew from the audience guarantee they'll be saved for use in the future.

A dress rehearsal on Dec. 7 provided the elementary school performers an opportunity to iron out any wrinkles, with guests from Fireweed Academy providing the perfect audience.

Adding to the all-school effort was an outpouring of support.

"There was nonstop help and enthusiasm from parents," said Piper of volunteers who helped create sets, provided rehearsal snacks, assisted with costumes and, in the case of Michelle Hatton, supplied music. Hatton provided a musical accompaniment on the harp to the second-grade students' portrayal of stars.

Backstage costume changes and the smooth flow from one scene to another were aided by school staff and faculty.

"Walking back into the library where all of the classes that were not on stage were waiting their turns, to see how focused and calm and ready they were and how all the other staff members worked backstage to make it be what it was, was pretty impressive," said Piper. "It was nice to peak through the wings and see the audience smiling, see the kids perform, but when I went backstage, it was a well-oiled machine and that's pretty impressive. There was huge teamwork."

DVDs of the performance will be available at a later date, details to be in a future school newsletter.

"This was so much fun for (the students) and nice to be able to do this, to give them their moment in the limelight," said Piper.