Child’s play? Not this musical.

Two dozen dancing Hinesburg middle schoolers have just managed a vaguely synchronized Broadway-like kickline and pinwheel in a Tuesday afternoon rehearsal for their upcoming musical, “Annie Get Your Gun.” Their director, 17-year-old Amelia Munson of Williston, calls out to them as they stand in their final poses, “Okay, you’re smiling, but your eyebrows are scary. Let’s try and smile without the scary eyebrows.” Then she demonstrates and the cast gets the difference between mugging like Jim Carrey with a fire hose and smiling because you’re a chorus geek who loves show business.

It’s been a long time since I was in an eighth grade school play, but I have two recollections. The first is that my dad observed after my performance opening night, “Son, there’s a difference between projecting and screaming.” Then, before the second show, I spilled Hawaiian Punch on the white sheet that was most of my costume, but the audience – apparently – was so enamored of my newfound ability to project instead of scream that no one said a word.

Or, perhaps, there were simply far bigger problems with my (and I use this word advisedly) “performance” than the fact that my sheet looked like a prop from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

As Munson told me before she began that afternoon’s rehearsal, “I want the show to be good, but I am as interested in the process as I am in the product. I want the kids to be having fun and learning. I want them to be responsible.”

Usually the Hinesburg Community School has an adult directing their annual musical. Not this spring. Munson is a senior at Champlain Valley Union High School, and while she has performed in musicals with the Lyric Theatre, the Stowe Theatre Guild, and in school plays since she was in elementary school, this is her first time directing. Her stage manager is another CVU senior, Greg Zengilowski.

Now, there is no truth to the rumor that originally Hinesburg wanted to hire the fired “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” director, Julie Taymor. Given the ever-growing casualty list at the Broadway fiasco – T. V. Carpio, this week – school officials always feared there wouldn’t be enough eighth graders left alive to move on to ninth grade at CVU if they brought Taymor on board. Also, Munson was less expensive.

Actually, according to Jenny Cianciola, the music teacher at Hinesburg, the real reason she wanted Munson was that she liked the idea of “a team of young, hip high schoolers to inspire our kids and give them a hint of what’s to come for them at CVU.” And Munson has done an absolutely terrific job in Cianciola’s opinion.

Moreover, Munson is succeeding despite serious hurdles. There have been seven cancelled rehearsals due to snow this winter. The day I was watching rehearsal, the student playing Annie Oakley was home sick with what might have been strep throat.

But the cast was focused that rehearsal and having fun: Munson’s two goals. Hoyt McCuin, 14, is the eighth-grader who was cast back in December as the musical’s other romantic lead, Frank Butler. McCuin, however, also plays ice hockey, soccer, and lacrosse – especially ice hockey. He is the first line center for the state champion Chittenden South Burlington Bantam A Hawks, a team that travels to Buffalo, N.Y. this coming weekend to play in a national tournament. That tournament conflicts with the musical’s show weekend and McCuin, talented as he is, can only be in one place at one time. His choice? “How could I not support Amelia and Greg?” he told me. “I want to give back to the community the way they do.”

Consequently, when the show opens this coming Thursday night, he will indeed be in the multipurpose room that serves as the Hinesburg school’s gym and theater, performing alongside 36 of his middle school peers. That’s responsibility. And show business.

And I’m confident that when the kids are smiling at the end of their performance, none of them will have scary eyebrows.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 27, 2011.)


Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.