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Happily ever after: New West Secondary stages Shrek the Musical

NWSS students dish on life, theatre and finding your tribe of weirdos.

Rebecca Vander Zalm is clearly not a large green ogre with a Scottish accent, and Scotia Browner is patently not a princess with a deep, dark secret.

But they admit to finding pieces of themselves in the characters they’re playing in Shrek the Musical.

New Westminster Secondary School’s musical theatre program is bringing the family-friendly production to the stage March 1 to 4 at Massey Theatre.

For Scotia, the musical resonates because of its core message of being true to who you are — a message as important in the hallways of a high school as it is in the land of Far, Far Away.

“It’s actually OK to be the theatre kid, to be odd, because you will be loved by the right people, you know, the people that matter,” she explains.

Rebecca agrees.

“It does feel kind of personal — the message of ‘What makes us special makes us stronger,’” she says. “People that do theatre, they also get made fun of for doing it. But going on the stage and doing it anyway is sort of proving the message: Even if we’re made fun of, it’s not going to stop us from pursuing it and making this creation.”

And, just like the fairy-tale creatures in Shrek find their own group of “weirdos” — well, so too have the cast and crew of this production.

A chat with five of the students over their lunch hour is full of easy banter, laughter and obvious camaraderie.

It helps that Shrek and Donkey — VanderZalm and Shantei Leal — are close friends in real life, so it wasn’t a stretch to become an inseparable duo onstage.

“I think for us the challenge was because we’re not very touchy people, and Donkey and Shrek, they have these moments that are supposed to be really genuine and serious, but because we’re not touchy people we tend to giggle and laugh,” Shantei says with a laugh.

“Shrek hates it and so do I, so it’s all good,” Rebecca adds wryly.

Their natural chemistry has expanded to include their castmates — including Christian Duarte, playing the villain Lord Farquaad (yes, he has to play the vertically challenged character while kneeling, and, yes, he’s adapting just fine to the knee pads that are part of his costume).

He’s clearly unfazed by the ribbing of his castmates, who joke that Duarte is exactly the same in real life as he is in his onstage evil persona.

“I really do love it,” Christian says. “I just think that being a villain allows me to be just so — ”

“In your element?” interjects Scotia, as the students laugh in a way that suggests they may have had this conversation before.

“I just think it allows me to express myself in a very different way that I personally do like,” Christian continues. “I feel that as Farquaad I can just not be me, per se, but also have more of a punch than other characters, and I just like that.”

Scotia, too, has embraced the chance to play her character, the princess-turned-ogre who finds an unconventional happily ever after.

“She’s such a firecracker,” Scotia says. “Yes, she’s a princess who wants to be saved, and she wants a happy ending. But she’s also a very strong female character. I’ve just never played a character who was so quirky and uplifting and just so fun to play with. It’s been really cool finding little nuances in her performance and in the script to see Fiona and see the similarities between me and the character.”

The appreciation the students have for each other extends beyond the cast. Crew member Owen Ross is easily absorbed into the group dynamic as he explains how the school's musical theatre program has helped him find his passion in life.

He’s a student in the school’s carpentry apprenticeship program, where he’s honing skills that he puts to good use as a crew member. He’s officially the mic tech, but he can also be found helping with the construction of set pieces, flies, drops, painting props — “a bit of everything, really,” as he puts it.

He’s planning to pursue a career in technical theatre, specifically carpentry for the stage, and that starts with getting his Red Seal in carpentry.

“And then just using that knowledge and those skills to create and keep creating, keep building, keep learning, because at the end of the day, it’s what I love. You know, it’s tiring, and it makes me sore, but I love it. And I would happily do it every single day for the rest of my life,” he says, to nods of agreement from the other students.

The supportive group dynamic that’s evident during the conversation didn’t happen by accident.

All the students give credit where it’s due: to the team of teachers who lead them.

The more than 85 students involved — 48 cast and crew, 15 hair and makeup artists, and 23 members of the orchestra — are led by five NWSS staff members.

The trio of drama teacher Frances Monteleone, vocal teacher Kelly Proznick and dance teacher Lindsay Waldner — “three very powerful women,” as Scotia describes them — are in charge of the spectacle that will unfold on stage. Working closely along with them are band teacher Steve Clements, plus teacher Traci Cave on hair and makeup — a particularly large undertaking in a musical that features ogres and other magical beings. (The prosthetics and makeup for Rebecca alone take at least an hour each time.)

“There’s so many different things to learn from all of them,” Rebecca says, “whether it’s just the information that they’re bringing about the musical and how to go about that, or just how to present yourself in life and how to live life to the fullest and be a good person and have respect for others.”

Get your tickets for Shrek the Musical at Massey Theatre

  • What: Shrek the Musical, presented by NWSS
  • Where: Massey Theatre, 735 Eighth Ave.
  • When: Wednesday, March 1 to Saturday, March 4, with evening shows nightly at 7 p.m., plus a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m.
  • Tickets: $20 general/$18 students, seniors and children, plus service charges, buy online

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
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