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"Hansel and Gretel" coming to Memorial Auditorium

Under the direction of tour actor and director Preston-Joseph Woods (top center), more than 40 area youths rehearse for this weekend's performances of "Hansel and Gretel," presented by Friends of the Auditorium and the Missoula Childrens Theatre, at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center in Worthington.

WORTHINGTON -- "I love acting," professed Mariah Elser, a 12-year-old from Sibley, Iowa, after roughly five hours of rehearsal Tuesday evening.

Elser, who will be seen as a "Wildwood Witch's cook" in this weekend's performances of "Hansel and Gretel" at Worthington's Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center (MAPAC), was no less enthusiastic about being part of the 42-kid cast at 8:30 p.m. than she was at 3:30 p.m.

"This is the third time I've been in a Missoula Children's Theatre (MCT) show here, but it's my first time to play a girl," Elser giggled, explaining she had previously been a knight in "King Arthur's Court" and Mowgli in "The Jungle Book."

That kind of wholehearted artistic buy-in is just what MAPAC manager Margaret Hurlbut Vosburgh, and the two-member MCT actor/director team facilitating the show-in-a-week, hope the MCT residency provides to budding thespians.

"Having MCT here -- and this is their 10th visit -- gives kids a chance to be on stage and have a professional theater experience," said Vosburgh. "The MCT teams are always well-prepared, and they teach the kids a lot about self-esteem and respect for others, too -- even though the kids don't know that's happening most of the time."

Beginning with Monday afternoon auditions, MCT's team of Preston-Joseph Woods and Taylor Peters guide three and a half dozen area 5- to 15-year-olds in learning songs, blocking and lines to successfully deliver a nearly one-hour show by Friday evening.

"Taylor and I are enjoying working with the kids," agreed Woods earlier this week. "We both direct them, then we take turns being an on-stage performer, along with the students. I'll be the performer here."

Woods and Peters are 22-year-old aspiring actors/singers/dancers who have spent the past six-plus months bringing MCT's version of "Hansel and Gretel" to communities in more than seven states and Canada.

"Missoula Children's Theatre always puts its own spin on the classic tales, and this one's full of new surprises, thrills and chills," shared Woods, a native of Georgia who will mark his 23rd birthday this week.

Peters, a graduate of the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, Calif., said she accepted the MCT gig because "it sounded like a great opportunity to pass on my knowledge and love of theater to a bunch of kids whose school budgets don't really allow for a lot of theater.

"Theater has been a big part of my life since I was their age, and traveling the country appealed to me greatly, so that's why I wanted to do this for a year," said Peters.

Watching Peters coach her young actors, it's easy to see she and Woods bring seemingly limitless energy, excitement and patience to their jobs.

"Fly into your room on top of a broom," she chanted as an evening rehearsal wound down. Her charges eagerly continued, "Waiting for you, about to say 'boo,' are things that go bump in the night!"

Later, as Woods reminded the actors of the next day's schedule, he praised, "We are very proud of the work you guys are doing. Remember to find ways to keep energizing yourself."

Added Peters, "School comes first -- but memorize, memorize, memorize."

Katelyn Johnson, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Sibley, is this week's Gretel, while Tommy Taylor, a 12-year-old from Ocheyedan, Iowa, is Hansel.

Worthington High School ninth-grader Emma Gerber is the Wicked Witch.

"Each part is equally important in the show," assured Woods. "It's just that some parts have more lines than others."

"This is the biggest role I've had," said Johnson, a bright-eyed blonde. "I've been in two other shows here, and I really like my part so far -- it's fun."

Maggie Putnam, a fifth-grader at Worthington's St. Mary's School, is sacrificing her Squirt hockey practices this week in favor of "Hansel and Gretel."

"I've been in maybe four or five Missoula shows before, and I didn't want to miss one," said Putnam, whose older siblings have also participated in past MCT performances.

"I'm 'Cook No. 5,' and I've had a good time so far," added Putnam. "I like being on stage and being here with friends.

Putnam's mother, Ruth, is delighted with the performing opportunities provided via MCT residencies, noting her older daughter -- Genna, a Worthington High School senior -- went on to be involved with high school productions, including the upcoming musical "Hairspray" scheduled for Jan. 31-Feb. 2.

"It's really nice they (MCT) come to town, and we appreciate the sponsors who make it possible," said Putnam.

The Elizabeth Trunk Estate is sponsoring this year's MCT show. Vosburgh said Trunk was a "huge local patron of the arts" who, during her lifetime, attended everything possible at MAPAC.

MCT's Peters attests to the positive effect the experience has on student participants.

"It's such a compact schedule and they learn everything so fast that, when it's over and I ask them about their favorite part, the kids tend to say, 'All of it!" said Peters. "They enjoy being on stage, watching each other perform and helping out backstage.

Performances of the Missoula Children's Theatre "Hansel and Gretel" are at 7 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Auditorium, 714 13th St., Worthington. Tickets will be available at the door starting one hour before each performance, or may be purchased in advance from 9 a.m. -1 p.m. today and Friday at the Memorial Auditorium box office. All seats are general admission. For more information, call 376-9101.