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Paulette( Ginger Uhlfelder) and Elle (Lexi Owgang) and the company of “Legally Blonde The Musical Jr.” sing “Bend and Snap.” DEBORAH ANN TRIPOLDI/STAFF

Legally Blonde The Musical Jr.
Music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benhamin, Book by Heather Hatch
Based on the novel by Amanda Brown, and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture.

Thursday, April 11,
Friday, April 12, 7 p.m.

Buzz Aldrin Middle School, Mount Hebron auditorium
173 Bellevue Ave.

Tickets at door.

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

When Ginger Uhlfelder first auditioned for “Hairspray” at Buzz Aldrin Middle School two years ago, she cried.

She walked outside to her mother’s car.

She walked back in and lost her nerve, and cried again.

She walked back out.

Finally her mother walked her in.

“I was having a total meltdown,” Uhlfelder said with a laugh. “Karen-Ann [Kaelin-Panico, the director] told me, ‘Honey, everyone gets in, and you can just say no, but please audition,’ and I’m so glad that she did. Because I auditioned, I was ensemble as most sixth graders are, and it helped me become a lot more confident.”

In sixth grade, Uhlfelder explained, she had learned the wrong song. It was her first year in a new school, and she did not know anyone.

In seventh grade, it was a totally different experience when she went to audition for “High School Musical,” and she was an understudy.

This year, Uhlfelder plays Paulette in “Legally Blonde The Musical Jr.,” which opens tonight at Buzz Aldrin Middle School.

Her character wears a multicolored wig.

Paulette works at a nail salon, and befriends Elle Woods, the blonde of the title, who, as in the 2001 movie, has gone to Harvard Law School to impress Warner Huntington III, who broke up with her because she was too stupid, and win him back.

Paulette sings a solo.

Flirts.

Uhlfelder has come a long way.

“She’s probably our biggest rock star,” said Kaelin-Panico. “She just walked up the chain. She has come from a person who barely spoke to someone who is now a lead in the show.

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KAREN-ANN KAELIN-PANICO

It’s the first time we ever let a parent stay in the hallway during an audition.”

Kaelin-Panico loves the supportiveness of the companies she directs at BAMS.

“We’re all family inside here. That, to me, is what it’s about.”

Many of the kids in the show would not otherwise interact, she said. And at rehearsal, they interact in person, not through a phone or a screen. That’s so important for a generation that doesn’t really know how to communicate.

Cell phones are only allowed during breaks.

Kids interested in a leading role have a few weeks to prepare, and come in with a song and a monologue.

“The most important thing to me is public speaking, and being able to bring yourself to that point,” Kaelin-Panico said. “I have friends my age that are so anxiety-driven they can’t go on interviews.”

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READ: FINDING A HOME ONSTAGE ‘IN THE HEIGHTS’

READ: ‘HAIRSPRAY’ AT BUZZ ALDRIN MIDDLE SCHOOL INTEGRATES EVERYONE

READ: MOVING BEYOND CLIQUES IN ‘HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL’

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Whether someone is Broadway-bound or just having fun, mastering the ability to come onstage and communicate is huge, she said.

She’s built up the theater program at BAMS over the past 12 years, when she began as assistant director. This is her fifth year as director.

Buzz Aldrin is not an arts magnet school, like Glenfield, and its theater program emphasizes inclusion, whereas theirs is more competitive, she said. “Legally Blonde the Musical Jr.” has a company of 88, including 33 students on stage crew.

Glenfield Middle School presented “In the Heights” last week.

“But I really think the message we portray is the same,” she said. That message, she said, is “be true to yourself.”

It’s an especially important message right now given the recent college admissions scandals that made national news, in which parents paid a middle man to fake their children’s test scores or athletic ability, Kaelin-Panico added.

She’s seen how college pressure has affected her daughter, Kelsey, a high school senior who is also the student director on the show, and face people saying things like “You don’t look like an Ivy League person.” The choreographer, Emma Uva, is a freshman at MHS.

The message of “Legally Blonde The Musical Jr.” brings diversity in an educational way, with its plot center around blonde, sparkly Elle, who’s interested in fashion merchandising, who turns out to be right for Harvard after all.

“I just felt like it was so appropriate for today, and about fighting for what you believe in and not to judge a book by its cover,” she said.

Elle also wins the support of the cast, thanks to her integrity as a person.

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Some of the leads of “Legally Blonde The Musical Jr.”
back row, from left: Lexi Owgang, Maya Burke, Owen Boyce, Sara Egziabher. Front row, Ginger Uhlfelder, Santiago Tabia, Jase Pirkle and standing is Ryan Hertzog.
DEBORAH ANN TRIPOLDI/STAFF

BECOMING FAMILY

For the leads in the show, ensemble work is the hard work of the show. Some of the cast are “cast captains” who help the director.

Once cast captain is Jase Pirkle, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, who plays Emmett Forrest, a nerdy eventual-love-interest for Elle. Pirkle has to wrangle the boys in the show for the frat dance scene.

“We have to improv with everybody else and make them look like they’re having a good time,” Pirkle said. “It’s really hard to get all of their attention at one time and keep their attention.”

His empathy for teachers has grown.

And the cast becoming a true ensemble is the payoff of the show.

“I feel like the cast is starting to become a huge family.”

When Ryan Hertzog, who plays Harvard meanie, Professor Callahan, cracked his kneecap a few weeks ago, members of the cast and the director, went to his house to visit.

Sara Ezhiabher, also a 14-year-old eighth-grader, said “I got to meet more people like I wouldn’t have been friends with Jase, because we do not have the same schedule at all, and now we’re friends and I can just talk to him.”

“I get to see my friends every day,” said Owen Boyce, who plays Elle’s ex, Warner Huntington III. Boyce, a 13-year-old eighth grader, recently performed in the dance concert at BAMS.

 

GETTING IN CHARACTER

In addition to the work of the show, however, there’s also schoolwork to be done. Time management is challenging, said Ezhiabher.

When the show gets to late hours after school, with dress rehearsal, it’s difficult.

Boyce agreed, but the plays have actually helped him organize his time.

“It’s worth it,” he said. “The show gets better. It’s challenging, but it’s made me more used to organizing.”

Hertzog’s injury has not kept him from being in the show: now he doesn’t do the dance numbers. He didn’t worry he would have to drop out of the show, he said. The shows are that inclusive.

Pirkle was too shy to audition in sixth grade. Then he saw “Hair Spray.”

“My eyes were opened to this whole new world. I joined for ‘High School Musical’ in seventh grade,” he said.

For Egziabher, playing the rude and condescending Vivienne helped her understand other people, particularly as she learns to be nicer thanks to Elle. To play her angry character, she focuses on what she’s stressed about, and gets it out there, she said.

Eighth-grader Lexi Owgang, 13, who plays Elle Woods, has been doing the shows since sixth grade.

But she loves “Legally Blonde” so much she just wanted to be in the show, even if she didn’t get a lead role.

Elle, she said, “has grown up in wealthy Malibu, and private schools, and have everything given to her. When she gets to Harvard and has to work harder than she’s ever done before, it opens up her eyes to the real world. She grows throughout the show.”

It was easy to play Elle, she said, who is bubbly and outgoing. “I based it on myself,” she said with a smile. The song “Legally Blonde” is her favorite because it’s “a little sad, but from there she can only bounce back up.”

The show has a message of girl power, said Kaelin-Panico.

“But it’s also boy power. The frat boys are supportive,” she said. “There’s so much support about coming out of your comfort zone.”