Twenty-four East Valley youngsters will take the stage as knights and other characters when State 48 Theatre in Mesa presents an original musical.
“Merlin and Morgana” is written and directed by Andrea McFeely, co-artistic director at State 48 and the playwright of 15 productions for State 48.
Her best friend and co-artistic director, Karli Kemper, worked with frequent collaborators Sammi Merkley and Calli Overstreet on the music and lyrics. Orchestration is being done by Bryson Giles, another frequent music collaborator.
The musical opens Dec. 4 and runs through Dec. 14 at The Fuse Box at State 48 Theatre Company, 943 S. Gilbert Road, Suite 202, in Mesa
Show times are 7 p.m. Dec. 4-6 and Dec. 12-14. There are performances at 3 p.m. Dec. 7 and Dec. 14. Tickets are $14 and are available for purchase at state48theatre.com/tickets. Discounts are available for groups of 10 or more.
The young actors and actresses, ranging in age from 9 to 15, will harken to the time of King Arthur’s Court and Camelot.
Merlin, a powerful wizard who already seems to know Camelot’s fate, is accompanied by Morgana, a gifted young witch who finds herself increasingly at odds with the stubborn wizard.
As the world shatters around them, Merlin and Morgana may be blind to the force more powerful than all of their magic: love.
McFeely said the idea for the musical emerged organically during one of her frequent brainstorming sessions with Kemper.
“Truth is, my partner and I are trying to inspire a love of performing in all of the children who pass our way, so we look at the things we think would be fun to do onstage,” McFeely explained.
“We love period plays, we love fantasy, we love comedy and dramas and music. So we throw around ideas offering opportunities for young people at all levels of experience. When we land on one we both get excited about, I get excited to write the script, she gets excited to write the music and we start planning,” she continued, adding:
“In this case, I was excited by the many, many wildly shifting representations of Morgan le Fey (Morgana) throughout history, the comical opportunities the Knights of the Round Table versus Sir Lancelot offered, and the deep drama of Merlin being at odds with his student, Morgana. I also stole three witches from Shakespeare to bring into the fold.”
She also has worked in some magic – one of the most challenging aspects of mounting the production.
“It can be challenging to make something look magical and also have it be safe and practical,” she said. “Our ‘junior’ cast consists of young people ages 8-15 and their safety is always the first priority.”
The set is also more intricate than many Stage 48 productions – such as the construction of a cave, will remain on the stage throughout the musical, McFeely said.
“The actual stage in our theatre space is quite large for a ‘black box’ but it has almost no wing space,” she said. “Because of this, we have to be very creative with our staging and sets. This one is proving to be no different.”
Through more than six weeks of rehearsals, McFeely also had a chance to tweak her work.
“I try not to take lines away from anyone – leads to heartbreak – if it can be avoided,” she said.
Such tweaking in other productions out of necessity.
“Sometimes, a character comes to life in rehearsals and I realize I need to expand the story; sometimes I realize I rushed something and it needs to be given a little extra love and attention,” she said.
“Working with kids is great when you are workshopping, they are sponges. They absorb changes and additions almost instantly and are excited to try new things.”
A fulltime Phoenix music teacher, McFeely studied theater at San Francisco’s renowned American Conservatory Theater and at Saddleback College I Southern California.
After working in Hollywood for many years, she relocated to Arizona. In addition to teaching high school theatre at Gateway Early College High School, she acts with different companies around the valley and writes and directs for youth and community theatre.
She was most recently the artistic director of the Tuscany Theatre Company in Gilbert where she directed both classic and modern Broadway plays and contemporary works.
In the last three years, she has directed a number of musicals and plays, including “Pirates: A Love Story,” which she wrote with Kemper.
She’s currently also working on a production of Ken Ludwig’s “Leading Ladies” and another youth production with her “Merlin” team will present a unique spin on the old tale of Frankenstein.
“I think the story is so haunting and I love the background story to how the Mary Shelley novel came into being,” McFeely explained.
“Our version weaves the story of the young romantic poets and writers spending their cold, wet summer by Lake Geneva, spinning scary stories for each other together with Shelley’s tragic tale of a monster and his creator.”
McFeely is also a private acting/audition coach and full-time educator. In her classes, actors utilize the improvisation exercises of Viola Spolin to unleash their creativity and the acting techniques of Stella Adler to bring their performances to big and truthful life.
Kemper has been teaching general music, musical theatre, private voice, and beginning piano for over 20 years at charter schools, studios and theatre companies in Arizona.
She also has been the musical director for the touring performing groups The Kids Next Door and The Sing and Stomp Crew, who performed at Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, Magic Mountain, the Gilbert Days Parade, The Rockettes Holiday Performance and the Roadrunners and Phoenix Suns half time shows.
She has taught choir at Heritage Academy in Mesa and currently directs the touring academy show choir, Wildfire, at FUSE Performing Arts Center.
She emphasizes the Bel Canto style of voice training.
Both Kemper and McFeely don’t know the meaning of idleness.
McFeely said, “When things are slow, I’m directing only one show, running a couple of classes through our theatre, working on the next script and teaching full-time.
“My partner, Karli, has an equally demanding schedule between music directing, teaching classes for our theatre and for our ‘sister’ dance studio, writing new music, and raising two very young boys. She, like me, barely remembers what it feels like to be well-rested.
“But we are both so thrilled we get to do what we love with kind and talented youth and adults, we have the support and assistance of talented, generous folks like Katy and Scott Springer, Mike and Amy Smyth, Chantel Powers, Marla Arnold, Cheri Lundgreen, Jeremy and Judith Connors, and our families. Karli’s family is extremely talented and creative. We drag them into our work all the time.”
Indeed, as a volunteer theater State 48 relies on the kindness of others for everything from set design and choreography to stage managers and even the board of directors.
“As we continue moving through our third season, we regularly reflect on what we are providing to our community by doing original material,” McFeely said. “Is it valuable? Is it dynamic? Is it providing a positive learning opportunity? Does it feed our hearts, our passions, our creativity? Does it feed the hearts of our participants? Their passions? Their creativity?”
“We love a well-done Broadway musical just as much as the next person – and there are many venues providing excellent Broadway experiences for young people. One of our goals is to keep giving adventurous young actors a chance to build something new from the ground up.”
The cast for Merlin includes Mesa students: Sophie Allen, 15; Jayme Lynn Cole, 12; Cayleb Couch, 12; Emmalee Couch, 14; Lauren Couch, 9; Tommy Dale, 11; Grace Davis, 13; Erin Garner, 15; Savannah Glenn, 13; Sydney Glenn, 11; Brooklyn Harris, 15; Carma Jenkins, 11; Alex Marin, 12; Savannah Springer, 10; Averi Williams, 13; and Matix Williams, 11.
Gilbert thespians include Carson Giles, 10; Iris Giles, 11; Noah Giles, 13; Grant Rankin, 12; and Chris Smyth, 13.
Chandler cast members are Laura Flood, 11, and Sofia Lindsey, 13.