A little more than two years ago, Wilson High’s theater department was gearing up for a big production of “Shrek: The Musical.” The COVID-19 shutdown on March 13, 2020 canceled the run and shuttered high school drama programs for much of the last two years.
Now, the world of school theater has come full circle as Long Beach Poly is putting on “Shrek: The Musical” at the Andy Osman Auditorium on campus with a run that began Thursday and ends with two performances on Saturday.
“True story, a lot of the costumes and props that you see here came from Wilson, because they had accumulated all this stuff and they never got to do their show,” said Poly drama teacher and “Shrek” director Linda Bon. “All this stuff had been sitting in storage for two years. It was really beautiful that they lent them to us, it gave us a real jumpstart.”
Recent weeks have seen a return to the theater for many of the city’s high schools. Millikan hosted a well-attended and much-loved run of “Mamma Mia!” earlier this month, and Wilson has joined Millikan and Poly in recently staging student-written one-act plays.
But the magic of Millikan and Poly’s big musicals this month is hard to deny. With students playing live music, singing and dancing amidst full sets, the productions involve work from more than 100 students and several teachers, each bringing something different to the production.
Poly’s cheer and dance teacher, Cynthia Negrete, was the choreographer for “Shrek,” while music teacher Brian Dokko was the musical director for the show and conducted an ensemble that played live throughout. Other teachers, as well as parents who work in the entertainment industry, helped with lighting and technical design to create a professional theater experience.
The joy on the Poly students’ faces after Thursday night show made it obvious that it was a special night.
“You could just feel the anticipation building for it,” said student Kaysee French, who played Fiona—a unique role on campus because Poly alum Cameron Diaz voiced Fiona in the original “Shrek” movie. “It was absolutely everything we’ve been dreaming of. It’s even more than you expect because the community and the love are just overwhelming.”
As excited as the students clearly were, from those acting in the show to the stage crew maneuvering sets and props, Bon looked like it might have meant just as much to her as it did to her students.
“Being stuck for a year behind a little screen trying to teach drama was so miserable,” she said. “We made the best of it, they made films on Zooms and whatnot. Now we’re doing a full show with no masks, we didn’t know we’d be able to unmask until very recently.”
Of course, any undertaking on a campus over the last two years has been its own mini-marathon, and trying to get together live performances that involved so many people was even bigger. “Shrek” was originally scheduled to run at Poly in February, but the omicron surge threatened to make it two straight years with no big performances.
“Half our cast went down,” said Bon. “Rehearsal was a nightmare because half the cast was out all the time in quarantine, so we were barely walking forward. We just crossed our fingers and delayed a month and hoped that things got better. It worked out we hit it just right.”
That journey is part of why Thursday’s performance at Poly felt like a celebration as much as it did a theater performance. The show was noteworthy with a strong cast and high-level production quality, as well as great singing from French, Luke Porter (Shrek), Kylie Porter (Donkey) and scene-stealing performances by Ben Farfan (Lord Farquaad) and Zakira Pegues (Dragon).
One of the ways Bon’s crew fought their way through the pandemic was to double-cast the show, so most of the roles will alternate performers this week and weekend, a necessary solution to the unique challenges of performing in 2022.
“This is our first big production in two years,” said French. “There’s so much love here, we don’t ever want to lose it again.”
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