The Huns have invaded, breaching the Great Wall of China. Every family is to send a male to fight, but this family has only one elderly man. What is his young daughter to do?
That is the premise behind Disney’s “Mulan Jr.,” a play based on an ancient Chinese legend of an intrepid maiden and the 1998 Oscar-nominated animated film that will be reprised today, June 26, by 45 students enrolled in the Kyrene Community Theatre.
This season has 34 cast members and 11 in the crew.
The Kyrene Community Theatre is a four-week summer program of Kyrene Community Education headed by Program Director Marisa Dickerson.
The season culminates with a stage production of the musical at 7 p.m. at Kyrene Aprende Middle School, 777 North Desert Breeze Blvd., Chandler.
Ahwatukee students are well represented in the cast and crew.
Mulan— the plucky heroine who disguises herself as a boy named Ping to spare her aged father from heeding the call to arms — is played by Centennial Middle School eighth-grader Kaylei Viloria.
This is her first role with the Kyrene Community Theatre though she was in last year’s Centennial musical production “Peter Pan Jr.”
“My roles in ‘Peter Pan’ were Fawn the Fairy and Andrina the Mermaid,” Kaylei said. “As many people say, any role is a big contribution to the show, but those roles were not nearly as hefty-duty as Fa Mulan, especially considering I’ve never taken any vocal lessons.”
“Playing Fa Mulan is quite heavy-duty and even stressful at times, but regardless, the role is very enjoyable,” she added. ”In particular I love how I get to act more awkward, brave and especially more masculine (as Ping) than I’ll ever be in real life.”
Viloria plans to continue with theater and performing arts in high school.
“Being in performing arts has helped me be more extroverted, aided me in making a plethora of new friends and helped me find a side of myself I never knew existed,” she said.
“Not to mention the amazing teachers that have helped me pursue acting and singing including Kristi Mabee, Ian Grzyb, Benjamin Rabinowitz, Elena Colombe and most importantly my friends and family.”
The role of Mulan’s mischievous dragon sidekick Mushu is played by Brianna Nuñez, another Centennial eighth-grader in her second year with the summer troupe.
Though the small dragon is traditionally considered to be male, Brianna said she had no problem getting into the role.
“I think about my male family members and friends and I think about the character I’m playing,” she explained. “I’m a tomboy myself so it’s not that hard to get into that goofy boy personality.”
The role of Captain Li Shang is played by Phoenix Torres, in his second year with Kyrene Community Theatre.
He’s also active in theater at Centennial Middle School, appearing in the comical role of Smee in last year’s “Peter Pan Jr.”
“That was my favorite because he was such a funny character and I enjoy being funny,” said Phoenix, who’s been active in theater since sixth grade and has already signed up for theater when he enters Mountain Pointe High School in August.
“I think the most fun part of playing Capt. Shang is the singing part, and just being onstage. The hardest part was memorizing all the lines,” he said.
His mother Susan Bertlesman said theatre helped him evolve from a shy child to a more self-assured young teen.
“Theater helped him bloom and come out of his shell. He’s so much more confident now,” she said. “He found his passion in theater and wants to pursue it as a career somehow.
Indeed, Phoenix now says, “I definitely would like to pursue Hollywood acting in the future.”
Undertaking the role of Shan Yu, the ruthless and cruel Hun chieftain, is Macie Logan, a Centennial eighth-grader who, at age 13, has at least 14 plays under her belt and is president of the CMS Theatre Club this year.
“It’s not as difficult as it sounds to play the antagonist. Once you really get the character’s motive down and use the movie as an example, it gets a lot easier,” Macie said, explaining:
I didn’t try out for Shan-Yu, but it’s really fun to play the bad guy because I get to play around with the way I say my lines and my body language which sets up character development.”
Macie encourages other teens to join Kyrene Community Theatre.
“It’s such a good acting experience for people who are just starting out, and those who are already a part of acting,” said Macie, who is slated to attend an acting camp Los Angeles in August.
“Plus, it’s not just acting — kids get to be a part of the crew and create their own ideas, and make the sets and props themselves.”
Her mother, Jessica Logan, said acting comes naturally to her daughter who started her onstage work at Scottsdale’s Desert Stages Theatre.
“She got involved in community theater when she was eight years old. She loves the stage and does an amazing job at projecting her voice and grabbing the audience’s attention,” Logan said
“She’s always been interested in acting — she was putting on performances in the living room for my family since she was two,” her mother added. “I actually had to get a second job in order for her to do the camp, but I’ll always do whatever I need to do to make her dreams come true.”
Desert Vista High School incoming freshman Grace Calhoun has the role of Ancestor Laozi — which she said has allowed her to grow.
“I like singing, it’s my passion,” said Grace, a member of the Phoenix Girls Chorus for seven years, adding:
“But I also like acting because it lets me be a different person than I am. This role is one of the main characters in the play; the ancestors are there to guide Mulan throughout the journey, and I feel it’s a good role for me because I’m on stage a lot.”
A member of Girl Scout Troop 2188 and an Ahwatukee Girl Scout since age 7, Grace has participated in the Kyrene Community Theatre summer program for five years, playing the lead in last year’s production of “101 Dalmations KIDS.”
Kristi Kleiser, a three-year Centennial Middle School theater teacher who attended that school as a youngster, said the short summer session requires hard work.
“Summer Theatre is always a whirlwind of fun! We only have four weeks to put on the show. In that time, we rehearse all of the musical numbers, create costumes, design, paint and build set pieces and train the kids on the light and sound boards,” said Kleiser.
She was the Kyrene Community Theatre technical director three years ago, and director-in-charge for two.
“This year presented a fun challenge because the story of Mulan takes place in so many different locations. The tech students had to create the illusion of over eight different locations. The ensemble members also played multiple roles, so, they have quick costume changes to represent different characters,” she explained.
“My favorite thing about Summer Theatre is the opportunity for the students to meet peers from other schools and from other grade levels.
“It is fun to see the younger students make friends with and look up to the older students and for the older students to mentor the young ones. These friendships are built over a large span of time since the kids can participate in the program for five years,” she continued.
“Putting on a show is always such a rewarding experience. We work so hard, and so fast, to create this magical thing and the payoff is the audience’s applause and praise of our hard work when the kids take their bows.”
Centennial choir teacher Elana Colombe is the production’s music director and Rosie Champlin, a program coordinator at Kyrene de la Mirada Kids Club, is technical director and helps with choreography and costume design.
“Kyrene Community Theatre has been alive since the summer of 2007, and it continues to grow each year with many students repeating the program until they age out,” said Champlin, noting:
“Students from across the district participate in the program, It gives them all an opportunity to work on their skills and expand their knowledge of technical aspects of the stage.”
This is the fourth production that sisters Julia and Eva Lambson, Kyrene del Pueblo Middle School students, have worked as tech crew members.
The $5 tickets and $1 popcorn and water can be purchased online or at the door. Children 5 and under are free.