Schools present ‘Bridge to Terabithia,’ a bittersweet musical
- Published: December 8, 2023
Katherine Paterson’s 1977 children’s novel “Bridge to Terabithia” has been a seminal work of fiction for several generations of young readers — and for many, their first taste of loss portrayed on the page.
Next week, the young thespians of McKinney Middle and Yellow Springs High schools will bring “Bridge to Terabithia” to life in a musical production at the Foundry Theater. Performances of the play — co-penned by Paterson and Stephanie S. Tolan, with music by Steve Liebman — will be held Thursday–Sunday, Dec. 7–10.
Performing arts teacher and “Terabithia” director Lorrie Sparrow-Knapp said the winter play was chosen by this year’s eighth-grade cast members last year when they were in seventh grade — a tradition Sparrow-Knapp started several years ago.
“[The seventh graders] have been picking the plays for a while, and I just find that they pick things they want to do — it gives them an investment in the work,” she told the News during a recent rehearsal.
The play features a cast of seventh through ninth graders, and is the first musical Sparrow-Knapp has mounted for the lower grades.
“It’s not like the big musicals we do normally — this is a really gentle play with simple music, and it gives [the actors] a chance to really focus on what it means to sing and what lyrics mean.”
Sparrow-Knapp added that, in the schools’ fall and spring offerings, younger students often don’t get the opportunity to try out a leading role — but the winter play is their chance to shine.
“The idea is to get them singing earlier and get them comfortable with understanding what music performance is within plays — and it gives them the chance to have a larger role earlier on,” she said.
When the students chose the play last year, they were treated to a fun surprise when they read the list of the play’s premiere cast members printed in the front of the book — and saw their teacher’s name included.
Sparrow-Knapp originated the role of “Girl 2” in “Bridge to Terabithia” when it debuted in 1990 on Stage One at the Louisville Children’s Theatre, and remained part of the show’s touring cast.
“I didn’t know my name was going to be in the script when they read it,” Sparrow-Knapp said. “That was my first professional equity job.”
“Girl 2 rocks!” she added, sharing a high-five with Brooklyn Arrasmith, who plays the role in the schools’ production.
Set in small town Virginia in the 1970s, “Bridge to Terabithia” focuses on 10-year-old Jesse Aarons and his burgeoning friendship with new kid Leslie Burke. Bonding over a shared creativity, the two friends create the mythical world of Terabithia, which lies in the woods beyond a dry creek bed. In Terabithia, Jesse and Leslie imagine a fantastical world in which they can escape — and in their own ways, process — the pressures of school and bullies, of siblings, of parental and societal expectations.
But the play’s story is marked by unexpected tragedy — one that has left an impression on young readers for the nearly 50 years since the original novel was released, with many citing the book as their first experience with a character’s death.
For that reason, “Bridge to Terabithia” deals heavily with grief. It also centers dealing with grief through story and imagination — a theme that, by coincidence, also appeared in the schools’ fall play, “She Kills Monsters.” Eighth graders in this year’s cast said they chose the play last year specifically because of the subject matter.
“I liked it because you don’t get to see a lot of stories where people die — especially in kids’ books,” said Lila Crockett, one of the young actors who plays Leslie; many of the lead roles are double-cast.
“It reminds me a lot of ‘Where the Red Fern Grows,’” said Carson Funderburg, who plays Jesse’s school rival, Gary Fulcher. “It’s a really hard story, but it’s also a story meant for kids. I think it’s supposed to get kids ready for when this stuff actually happens.”
Funderburg added: “As someone who’s dealt with this type of grief before, I would say this play does a very good job of actually representing what it feels like.”
Noting the heaviness of the material, Sparrow-Knapp said the cast takes care to “step in and out” of their roles during rehearsal, so as not to bring any of that heaviness home with them at the end of the day.
“We step in and focus on what we want to do and the good ideas we have — but we realize that everything that happens in rehearsal stays in rehearsal,” she said. “So we have to step out and leave it behind.”
She added: “And we always have candy at the end of rehearsals — having chocolate helps release endorphins; in the theater world, they call it ‘trauma candy.’”
Lucia Espinosa, who also plays Leslie, said that the young cast makes it a point not to let the show’s impending tragedy influence the way they play their roles. The characters in the play — not unlike any of us moving through the world every day — don’t know their world is about to change.
“As an actor, you know that a character is going to die — but the character doesn’t know it,” Espinosa said. “They’re just living their life.”
“Bridge to Terabithia” will be performed at the Foundry Theater Thursday, Dec. 7, at 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, Dec. 8 and 9, at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 10, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for general admission, $10 for seniors and $5 for students, and may be purchased online in advance at bit.ly/TerabithiaYS.
Cast: Jesse — Finn Turnmire; Leslie — Lila Crockett and Lucia Espinosa; Mr. Aarons — Kaiden McFarlane and Brodan Chaffee; Mrs. Aarons — Quinn Murray and Wren Schubel; Brenda — Elise Bongorno and Allie Bayard; May Belle — Maggie Bullock and Natalia Ramirez; Janice Avery — Kaitlyn MacDuff and Antoinette Siegel Hall; Ms. Edmunds — Mallory Lininger and Petra Nieberding; Gary Fulcher — Carson Funderburg; Girl 1 — Veda Rainey; Girl 2 — Brooklyn Arrasmith and Rhythme Greene; Boy 1 — David Scott; Boy 2 — Paul Clark.