Photo provided by Jennie Miller - (From left to right) Emma Woodhouse, played by Gwen Lyczynski; Jane Fairfax, played by Kaitlyn Williamson; and Harriet Smith, played by Arwen Burkey, perform “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” during the Three Rivers High School production of “Emma: A Pop Musical.” The show runs from March 11-13 and March 18-20 at the TRHS Performing Arts Center.Photo provided by Jennie Miller - In a scene from the Three Rivers High School production of “Emma: A Pop Musical,” Emma Woodhouse, played by Gwen Lyczynski (left), talks with Philip Elton, played by Andrew Culver, a junior running for President of the next year’s student council at Highbury Prep.

Girl power comes to TRHS stage with "Emma: A Pop Musical"

THREE RIVERS — For the first time since 2019, the curtain will rise on a musical production at Three Rivers High School.

Almost two years to the day of the opening day postponement of “Mamma Mia” back in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, high schoolers in Three Rivers will return to the stage beginning this Friday, putting on their production of “Emma: A Pop Musical.”

“To be able to actually get to opening night is very exciting for us,” show director Jennie Miller said. “The kids have missed this. For a lot of kids, this is their outlet, and this is where they connect and find their family. To have them back at it again, they’re just thrilled.”

“Emma: A Pop Musical” will be performed at the TRHS Performing Arts Center from March 11-13 and March 18-20. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 7 p.m., while Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m.

The musical is based on the 1816 Jane Austen novel, “Emma,” and is set in more modern times. The story follows Emma Woodhouse, a senior at Highbury Prep, who is certain she knows what’s best for her classmates’ love lives and wants to play matchmaker to find her friend Harriet Smith, a shy sophomore, a boyfriend by the end of the school year. However, Emma’s relentless matchmaking could be getting in the way of finding her own happiness.

“She thinks she's good at it, and she tries to match up her friends. She has one successful match, and from there forward it doesn’t go as well,” Miller said.

The lead role of Emma is played by Gwen Lyczynski, while Harriet is played by Arwen Burkey. Other principal characters include Jeff Knightley, a senior who finds himself as the substitute teacher for the school’s freshman and sophomore science classes, who is played by Brody Fletcher; and Frankie Churchill, a world-famous pop star who attended Highbury his freshman year before getting a record contract, who is played by Josh Moore.

Miller said while it’s a smaller cast than previous shows she’s directed at the high school, she said she has enjoyed working with this particular cast in putting the production together, saying their energy has been “really high” in rehearsals. She added that them “reconnecting” with each other through theatre has been a positive for them.

A big aspect of the production’s connections with the modern day is the music selection, consisting of pop and rock songs that may be familiar to audiences, such as Sara Bareilles’ “Brave,” Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” and even classic 1960s hits such as “Chapel of Love” and “Be My Baby.” Miller said the song selections help bring a nostalgia factor to the show and helps enhance the story.

“I think we are all a little nostalgic. We all have that in us,” Miller said. “All of a sudden, in the middle of a scene, we'll break out into a song you'll recognize and you'll want to hum along and sing the lyrics in your head. It'll be very enjoyable to be a part of the audience for this.”

The production got a little bit of a boost of assistance thanks to an unlikely source. Miller said while they were practicing the show’s songs via YouTube videos, they came across a video of a school in Pennsylvania, Central York High School in York, Pa., who did a production of the show in 2018. Miller said they were impressed by the performance, and contacted the school to see if they still had the costumes and if they were willing to let them borrow the costumes to help out.

“They said, ‘sure, of course we’d like to send them over,’” Miller said. The costumes were shipped from Pennsylvania, and arrived at TRHS just a few days ago.

The timing of this year’s production and opening day is sort of symbolic of when the last scheduled musical, “Mamma Mia,” was supposed to be performed in 2020. March 12, 2020, was supposed to be opening night for the musical, but it was swept up in the myriad of cancellations and postponements that defined the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the area, much to Miller’s disappointment.

“We had done all the work and prep and the sets and the costumes, and it was like getting the carpet ripped out from under your feet,” Miller said. “But I think that happened to a lot of people in a lot of areas, and that's what we had to deal with.”

While at the beginning they hoped to have a reschedule date, the severity of the pandemic and its effects in those early months, as well as restrictions and precautions of the time, caused “Mamma Mia” to never be performed. There was no planned production in 2021 as an effort to keep kids protected and safe at the time. Because of these circumstances, when it comes to high school musical productions, the TRHS Performing Arts Center has been effectively dark since 2019’s “Footloose.”

Miller said it was great to be able to get back on stage three years after their last official performance.

“I don't know if it's a relief, but it's that sense of awe and excitement. There's nothing like working really hard on something and seeing it come to life on stage. Taking the words off the page and creating them into a vision is really magical,” Miller said. “I'm so thankful for the administration here and at the district level that they're willing to take a chance and let the kids do this again.”

When asked if “Mamma Mia” could potentially come back as a production in the future, Miller did not explicitly rule it out, saying, “Let’s see.”

The biggest theme and message of the musical, according to Miller, is “girl power.”

“I think Jane Austen as a writer had the girl power message in her books, because it was a male-dominated world then and she wrote very independently, which made her a strong female then. That translates into today,” Miller said.

Overall, Miller said “Emma: A Pop Musical” is a “lighthearted, fun musical” that can be enjoyed by the whole family, and a musical that also follows along fairly closely with the source material, just in a more modern setting.

“If you love Jane Austen and you like 80s, 90s and contemporary pop female artists, you will love this musical,” Miller said.

Tickets for “Emma: A Pop Musical” are $10 for adults and $5 for children. They can be purchased in advance at Preferred Insurance Services on 132 W. Michigan Ave. in Three Rivers, or they can be purchased the night of the show.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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