The Wekiva River Players celebrate their 25th anniversary with the show that started it all
Consider yourself at home
Consider yourself one of the family
We’ve taken to you so strong
It’s clear we’re going to get along
How is it that the Wekiva River Players (WRP) have been around for 25 years and are still going – and growing – strong? The above lyrics from the musical Oliver! say it all. From board members to show directors to the performers themselves, everyone involved says the youth theater organization is an inviting home-away-from-home.
“It’s a family that we have here, and I love it,” says Jamaal K. Solomon, who has worked with WRP for six years in many roles, including as a director. “I love the environment. I love the friendships that have been built.
“The students who are here really want to be here,” adds Jamaal, who is also Hagerty High School’s theater director. “They love spending time with each other.”
WRP, a nonprofit organization, was founded in 1993 as a community theater that staged plays and musicals. Originally, the group produced mainstage shows with actors of all ages and later added separate productions starring children and teens. The youth shows proved so popular, WRP evolved years ago into the Wekiva River Players Junior Theatre, an educational program exclusively for young people.
Oliver!, based on the Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist, was the organization’s inaugural show back in ‘93. WRP staged the classic musical for a second time to kick off its 10th season. It’s only appropriate, then, that the show is being presented for a third time in March on the occasion of WRP’s 25th anniversary as the group pays tribute to its past and looks ahead to a bright future.
“It’s kind of a nice, full-circle moment,” says Christine Gagliardi, president of WRP’s board of directors.
WRP offers tuition-based theatrical workshops for elementary-, middle-, and high-school students. Younger actors perform abbreviated versions of popular musicals in the spring and fall. High schoolers perform a full-length, well-known musical in the spring. The organization also offers a two-week summer stock program.
One of WRP’s strengths, Christine says, is that students receive a great deal of individual feedback and meaningful stage time because enrollment is capped at 24 kids per show. She has been actively involved with WRP for a decade. During that time, she has seen the positive effects the program has on its young charges, including her own daughters.
“I could share so many stories of kids who used to quiver in the spotlight; then, they come into their own and nail a solo or really stand out in a comedic role,” Christine says. “We are so proud of our students and the quality productions we continue to offer to the Central Florida community. We just seem to raise the bar every season.”
In November, the younger kids performed Once Upon a Mattress and Disney’s Aladdin JR. In May, they will star in Schoolhouse Rock Live! JR. and A Year with Frog and Toad KIDS.
In recent years, the high-school troupe has performed a mix of contemporary and classic shows, including Footloose, Les Misérables, Oklahoma!, and Legally Blonde The Musical.
Anthony Geluso, a freshman at Lake Brantley High, has been with WRP since grade school. He enjoys seeing so many familiar faces each season, from fellow students to the adults who teach them.
“You grow up with the same people, and you become one really close family,” Anthony says. “You don’t have to worry about being judged, either, because they know you.”
Mary Tracy joined WRP a couple of years ago. As a newcomer, Mary wasn’t sure how easily she would fit in. But all the good things she’d heard about the organization turned out to be true.
“After the first rehearsal, I had so many friends,” Mary says. “It’s very open and warm.”
Add a Bit of Broadway
Anthony and Mary were among the star-struck teens who recently benefited from WRP’s first-ever master class with a Broadway performer. The workshop was taught in November by Adam Pascal, best known for originating the role of Roger in the landmark rock musical Rent.
The class focused primarily on audition techniques and culminated in Broadway Lights, a student showcase featuring Adam as a guest performer.
Adam, who began playing in rock bands at age 12, says arts education groups such as WRP give creative types a way to connect with others in our technology-driven society.
“Art is vital because it gives kids an outlet and a form of expression that they don’t get anywhere else,” Adam says. “And, they find other like-minded kids. They find their people.”
Christine, her husband Josh, and their daughters Anna and Emily consider WRP to be a perfect fit for their family. Christine and Josh are devoted volunteers. Anna, now a college student, still attends WRP shows whenever she can. And Emily is a regular in WRP’s productions and other activities.
“We chose WRP because it meets on the weekends, and that worked for us – we stayed because the people are incredible,” Christine says. “My closest friends are other parents I’ve met through this organization. The directors really, truly are role models to my girls.”
The group has accomplished much over the past 25 years, presenting more than 100 shows and partnering with charitable organizations to support worthy causes. In recent years, WRP has teamed with Music for Melons to raise funds for breast cancer research.
However, one dream has been elusive for WRP – leasing or buying a venue of its own. The group has performed in high-school auditoriums, theaters, and other venues across Seminole County.
“Our biggest goal is finding our own space,” Christine says. “There’s more that our directors would like to offer. If we had a permanent home base, then we’d have a lot more options.”
Although WRP doesn’t have its own theater, it does have plenty of volunteer and community support. Christine and Jamaal, the lead director for Oliver!, are grateful for the parents and other volunteers who step up to help with every show.
“The parents see how much their kids love it and how much they gain from WRP,” Jamaal says.
The directing teams work with the students on important theatrical skills such as vocal technique and character development. But more importantly, the kids also learn valuable life lessons that can be applied to their future endeavors at school or in the workplace.
WRP helps students develop traits such as patience and compassion and teaches them how to collaborate with others and be flexible when faced with change. High schoolers are given opportunities to mentor the younger kids, and former students have even come back to work as interns.
“For us, it’s not just about putting on a show,” Jamaal says. “We want to share our love for the arts with the community.”
Richard Morgan credits WRP and its friendly, supportive atmosphere with helping him discover a passion for performing.
When Richard joined WRP in grade school, the main attraction was the readymade community of friends. The good times and close friendships remain important to him, but now the teen also knows that he wants to pursue a career in theater. In addition to WRP, Richard performs at his high school and other local theaters.
“WRP has been a really great way to introduce myself into this world of theater,” he says. “I’ve never not had fun doing a show here.”
For tickets or other details, call 407-262-1801 or visit WekivaRiverPlayers.org.
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