For three years, the coronavirus pandemic has prevented the North Merrick School District theater program from putting on a full production. But on March 17 and 18, Bellmore-Merrick residents will have the opportunity to take a stroll down the yellow brick road — and escape to another world — by viewing the district’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Two former teachers, Joyce Kelley and Gail Appel, oversee the theater program. Kelley taught sixth grade, and Appel was a vocal music instructor. Though they are now both retired, they continue to lead the program, out of their love for working with the kids and helping stories come to life on stage.
The story of how the theater program began is a funny one, they said.
“We had an interesting beginning,” Kelley recalled. “Both Gail and I started teaching in the North Merrick School District, in September of 1998 — hired at the same time. At the orientation, they had told me about this new music teacher coming in, so I spotted her, eyed her, and deliberately sat next to her.”
They then established a bond as teachers, and Kelley, who enjoyed working in theater, wanted to pair up with a music teacher to run a program.
“She hasn’t divorced me yet,” Kelley said, laughing. “This is our 25th year.”
Students from the district’s three schools — Old Mill Road, Harold D. Lafayette and Camp Avenue — share the efforts to put on the production. Only sixth-graders take part in the program, with auditions for the show having taken place in December.
The cast and crew of more than 100 students then work together after school, rehearsing at the Brookside building, the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District’s administrative headquarters.
“We’re really fortunate because we’re the only district around that has that,” Kelley said. “It’s, of course, about kids learning theatrical arts and respecting one another. But what happens is all three schools start to intermingle — and they become friends.”
Appel added that the students are scheduled to attend the Central District’s Merrick Avenue Middle School together next school year, and they will already know many of their classmates. Since they live in North Merrick, they’re also zoned for Calhoun High School, which is known for its highly regarded specialty-drama program, On Tour.
Starting them early is key for the future of the drama programs in Bellmore-Merrick, Kelley said.
“It’s a confidence booster, because you’re getting them at the right age where they think they can’t try new things — and then they do it, and they have a lot of confidence,” Kelley said.
The district was excited to put on “The Wizard of Oz” this year, for a number of reasons.
“The superintendent was eager to do a show that would, let’s say, bring multi-generations together — grandparents, parents and kids,” Kelley said. “There’s an element of history in this show. We talk a lot about the Great Depression, and how people were suffering and how they would use music and theater to get through it.”
Even though the theater program was unable to put on its production of “Shrek” in 2020, Kelley and Appel said they refuse to consider it a missed year. When the pandemic shut down everything in March 2020, they quickly rescheduled the show to debut in May.
“I was telling everyone, ‘Okay, we’re taking a week or two off — not a problem,’” Kelley said. “Then May fell through. Then I had an idea we’d do an outdoor performance in the back of Fayette, in the end of June. And then that fell through.”
“That was a wonderful show,” Appel added. “We had a wonderful cast. The kids still got the whole experience of working as a team and learning.”
The program was unable to produce a show in 2021, but last year, Kelley and Appel came up with a show called, “We’re Back,” featuring excerpts from “Annie,” “Bye, Bye Birdie,” and “Shrek.”
This year, they said it’s finally nice to come back together and have the kids put on a real, full show. Appel provides most of the music on her own, while playing the piano, which sets the production apart from others. No audio from CDs or cell phones is played, and every kid must learn the music they’ll be singing, they added.
The program receives tremendous support from volunteers, teachers, and even older students who’ve participated in past productions. Cynthia Seniuk, the superintendent of schools, has always supported the theater program, Kelley added.
“Theater arts is such a wonderful and valuable program for our sixth-graders,” Seniuk said. “The students have the opportunity to share their talents as part of a theatrical production, as well as form friendships with their peers in the other schools, just as they are poised to close one chapter of their education journey and start a new one together in middle school.”
Performances are set to take place at 7 p.m. on March 17 and 18 at the Brookside Auditorium in North Merrick, 1260 Meadowbrook Road. For tickets and more information, visit NMerricSchools.org.