Once a year, Broadway comes to Westchase.
OK, maybe it’s not all bright lights, big city, but the Westchase Community Theater put on its most recent show and it was a big success.
Thirty-seven children combined to put on four performances of “The Little Mermaid,” the Disney classic about the mermaid whose father demands that she live her life underwater while Ariel wants to experience part of the world of a human.
The cast consisted of kids ranging from kindergarten to high school and came from all over Hillsborough County. It was held at Westchase Elementary School, but the costuming and stage could only be described as “extravagant.”
Debbie Steinfeld and Randi Mitchell have been co-producing shows for for six years. Some of their other performances include “Beauty and the Beast,” “Cinderella” and “Aladdin.” Shawna Anaya joined as costume designer this year to team up with musical director Vanessa Lewis, choreographer Marianne Banales, and set designer Lisa Moore.
No one gets any money; it’s all volunteer. It’s also a labor of love.
“We like to be extravagant,” Steinfeld said amid organized chaos during a late rehearsal. “This is what we do. We are different and we go the extra mile to make it special.”
Any child who wants to participate is included. There are no cuts. Some of the youngest are given roles as part of the chorus, but they all get costumes and a moment in the spotlight.
“It is such a good experience for shy kids,” Mitchell said. “Some of the kids, for example, aren’t great singers, but they get to sing anyway.”
The ideas for the next performance are pretty much decided as soon as the current show is completed. It’s a year-round process and things really pick up in September when casting begins. From that point, there is one rehearsal a week until a week before showtime, when it goes every night.
There’s a lot more that goes into the show than just “extravagant” lighting and costumes. Playbills that rival anything at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts are available. As a special touch, fishbowls and fish were displayed on each of the tables at the front of the Westchase cafeteria, which is transformed when the lights go down.
It’s important to be versatile, especially for the older children. Samantha Mitchell, a 10th-grader at Steinbrenner High School, performed the roles of Ariel and the wicked Ursula.
“We are always looking for kids who can play a lot of parts,” Randi Mitchell said. “But we can’t do it without the help of the parents. They do so much for us. We had no idea Shawna could design costumes like these. It’s the help of people like her, who are willing to help for no money, that makes it work.”
There’s a small fee to participate in the theater, but the dues go strictly toward the show. The time and the effort and the last-minute jitters all come for free.
“We get bigger every year,” Steinfeld said. “We are already looking forward to next year.”