People generally consider elementary-school plays as sweet, but not particularly high-caliber. Bull Run Elementary’s production of the musical, “Mulan Jr.,” should dispel those notions.
“WE HAVE such a strong tradition here,” said Director Jolie Kelly. “This is our seventh musical.” The cast and crew of 65 has been rehearsing since December, and Kelly says the students have “worked really hard on an extremely challenging show. The music and staging are very difficult, but they’ve risen to the occasion and done a great job. I’m extremely proud of them, and I expect the audience to enjoy a great show.”
“Mulan Jr.” will be presented Tuesday-Wednesday, April 24-25, at 2 and 7 p.m. each day, in the school auditorium. Admission is free.
Attendees will be treated to a show featuring an engrossing story, beautiful music, choreographed dance and fight scenes and a dazzling, array of colorful, handmade costumes. Said Kelly: “We have great parent support.”
Both Craig Dykstra’s and Holli Tippl’s children have already graduated from Bull Run, but these parents are still involved. Dykstra is in charge of special effects, including an avalanche, plus the flame from the dragon’s mouth, and Tippl is the choreographer. Lois Moore is stage manager.
“We have sets that flip like storybook pages, so there are three different scenes on each folding set,” said Kelly. “Lois and Craig both conceived of and designed the flipping pages.” Parent Lisa Hollen was the main artistic designer, aided by Karen Emsley, Melissa Greenberg and Jennifer Green.
And Bull Run grad Max Ehrlich, now an eighth-grader at Rocky Run Middle School, is the fight choreographer, with help from younger brother Jake, a Deer Park Elementary fifth-grader. Their father owns the Black Belt Academy in Centreville and both boys have learned Wushu — which is the style of Chinese martial arts portrayed in “Mulan Jr.”
“It’s contemporary Kung Fu,” explained Max. “But this is more fluid and audience-friendly. Mrs. Kelly had seen me do it at Bull Run talent shows, so she asked me to choreograph the parts where the men are fighting and where they’re training to be soldiers.”
Max began working on the choreography at home in February and then taught it to the actors at school. “I showed them basic moves, but it looks really good when they all do it at the same time. The hard part was synchronizing it to the music.”
HE TAUGHT Wushu moves to some 18-20 boys and enjoyed it. “I liked teaching them and seeing them having fun while learning something new and interesting,” he said. “They were using their whole body while thinking.”
Music teachers Ruth Wygal and Kelly Butler-Noel will conduct the chorus during the performance. Music teacher Lauren Hentz is also working with the singers, but her main contribution is being the costume designer. Bull Run mom Linda Tobin created the costume for Mushu the dragon, and mom Claire Morson sewed all the elegant and colorful Chinese cheongsam dresses for the girls.
Hentz designed and sewed all the other costumes. “I did the long robes and Karate jackets for the boys [red tops and black pants] and the Hun costumes for the girls,” she said. “We’ve been working really hard on it for four months — including every day of spring break.”
The cheongsam dresses and many other costumes were made out of synthetic brocade material, and Hentz says the hardest part was “working with all those slippery fabrics. Several of the short jackets overlap and have Mandarin collars; and they and the longer, more formal robes worn by the ancestors, and some of the other characters, were also made out of the brocade.”
Hentz wasn’t as thrilled to make all the Hun robes because they were in neutral colors. “Working with the other fabrics was so much more interesting,” she said. And she was delighted that “the costumes turned out so gorgeous. The kids were so excited to see them and try them on, and it was so much fun to see their reactions. It’s important for them to feel good about what they’re wearing. It helps them get into their characters better.”
Sixth-grader Jisoo Song plays the “bad guy,” Shan-Yu. “I’m a Hun and I lead the army,” he said. “I’m trying to take over all of China and kill the emperor. I’m evil, and I threaten everyone that I’ll kill them if they don’t listen to me.”
Jisoo says both he and his character are quick-tempered, and he likes playing the role “because of that — and because I don’t have to sing.” The toughest part, he said, is “being scarier and talking loud enough and slowly.” But he’s happy to be in this role because “I’m the lead antagonist.” He said the show’s coming together well and his favorite part is the last scene, when he gets to fight with Mulan.”
In the title role of Mulan is fifth-grader Emma Sieber. “She’s a young woman in China who’s supposed to be chosen by the matchmaker to get married, but she fails,” said Emma. “Then one of the people from the council of the emperor comes and says the Huns have invaded China. One man from every family is asked to fight, but her father is too old to fight and she doesn’t have any brothers, so she joins the army in disguise so her father won’t have to.”
THE CHINESE defeat the Huns and, eventually, Mulan’s identity is revealed. She then goes to the Imperial Palace to warn the emperor that some of the Huns are still alive and danger still abounds.
“She’s really clever because, instead of fighting the Huns, she figures out that [the Chinese] can create an avalanche to cover the enemy army,” said Emma. “And she’s loyal and brave because she protects her father.”
The most challenging part of her role, she said, is memorizing all the lines, choreography and blocking. But, said Emma, “It’s really fun being up there with all the other people, and I have a lot of singing parts. And I get to play both sides of how a woman and a man would see things.”
Her favorite song is “Keep ‘em Guessing” because it’s jazzy. She also likes her solo, “Reflection,” because “it’s the lead vocal and everybody’s paying attention to [the singer].” She says the audience should like the show because “it has a lot of suspense and fighting scenes and there are a lot of cool, special effects.”
Wearing a red-felt, dragon costume with a yellow chest and a long, red tail is sixth-grader Andrew Freix as Mushu. “He’s the funny guy who thinks he’s cool, but he’s really not,” said Andrew. “I love it because, in school, I’m the class clown, so I was so happy I got this part and get to be a lead and make the audience laugh.”
Mushu used to be a guardian of Mulan’s family temple. “But he messed up and got kicked out,” said Andrew. “Now he’s trying to help Mulan as she goes off to war — which is illegal for girls, and she’ll be killed if she’s found out. So Mushu wants to help her be a hero so he can get back into the temple.”
ANDREW LIKES wearing his dragon costume because “it gets a lot of attention.” And he likes the reprise of the song, “Honor to Us All” because he does a funny dance to it. He said the audience will especially like Emma as Mulan because “for a fifth-grader, she has a really good voice – she’ll blow ‘em away. They’ll also like watching the Chinese soldier recruits do cool tricks with bamboo poles.”
Sixth-grader Mitchell Buckley portrays Capt. Shang. He’s in the Chinese army and his father is the general. “He orders his troops around and, at the beginning, he’s all business,” said Mitchell. “Later on, he falls in love with Mulan.”
He said it was tough learning the bamboo-sticks fighting routine, but he sings his favorite song, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” during that scene. “It’s my main solo, and it gives me a chance to go out there and sing, said Mitchell. He said the audience will enjoy all the songs and dances, as well as the show, itself. Said Mitchell: “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s fun.”