by Lou Mancinelli
When students from the C.W. Henry School, 601 Carpenter Lane in Mt. Airy, perform “Little Mermaid” at the annual winter production this Thursday and Friday, Dec. 13 and 14, 7 p.m., at the school, two of the lead roles will be played by Henry students with professional experience.
Dominique Swift, 11, a sixth grader, appeared as Adeline White, the daughter of bootlegger Chalky White, a henchmen of Atlantic City whiskey don Nucky Thompson on season three of HBO’s acclaimed “Boardwalk Empire.” Eighth grader Jhayda Washington, 13, appeared on Fox 29’s Good Day Philadelphia this past Memorial Day and sang “America the Beautiful.”
“It brings the best out of the other children,” said Nikki Paulino, show producer, director, choreographer, set designer and music teacher at Henry School about how the two more experienced elementary dramatists impact their fellow cast and crew members.
About 40 students make up the cast and crew who have practiced five days a week from 3 to 5 p.m. since school started in September. “When I’m on stage, sometimes I get nervous, but I just get lost in the words,” said Swift, a Mt. Airy resident who also enjoys singing and cheerleading. She will play Ursula in the upcoming production. “When I sit down and set a goal to learn it, I learn it,” she said about memorizing her lines.
Swift’s stage journey started around 2010 when she saw a commercial on the Disney Channel, home to two of her favorite actresses, Selena Gomez and Dakota Fanning. It advertised a talent event where interested children could audition for a chance to perform in a showcase at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. in front of a group of talent agents, managers, directors and producers.
Her mom liked the fact that many individuals she might have had to contact on her own to establish industry contacts were all there in the same place. It was an opportunity for her to nurture and invest in her daughter’s talent.
“I didn’t have to hit the pavement,” said Ayanna Holloway, Swift’s mother. When Swift’s initial application was accepted, they took a vacation to Disney and gave it a shot.
Afterwards, an agent offered his services to Swift. When his offer was declined, he decided to retain her anyway. That led to various auditions in Manhattan, including Broadway auditions for roles in “Annie” and “The Lion King.” Swift almost earned a role in “The Lion King,” but because she was too tall, she was forced to forfeit the opportunity.
Washington’s vocal voyage is rooted in Gospel music. She started singing when she was 3, according to her father, Richard Washington, a drummer and piano teacher as well as the choir conductor at Mt. Tabor AME Church near 7th Street and Girard Avenue.
Washington, 13, will play Ariel in the upcoming production. This past weekend she sang at the Department of Human Services Junior Stakeholders Annual Banquet, where she was also honored as a “Stakeholder.” The day before Election Day this year, she sang the Star Spangled Banner during former President Bill Clinton’s speech at Montgomery County Community College.
According to her father, his daughter gets work through word of mouth or from someone who saw her perform on one occasion and would like to use her for another. That’s how she was contacted about the Clinton affair. Her father plans to find her a full-time voice coach in order reach the next level.
“Back then she just had a really cute voice,” said Paulino, who has been working with Washington since she entered kindergarten. Washington’s been in a performance every year, but “Mermaid” marks Swift’s second performance at Henry.
“Mermaid” will be Paulino’s seventh produced show at the school. A 2004 music education graduate of Millersville University, Paulino, 30, earned her master’s of education from Gratz College in 2010. Raised in Bucks County, the 2000 Council Rock High School graduate has also performed and served as music director at Town and Country Players in Doylestown.
“To be on the stage at all is amazing,” said Paulino, who tries to find a role in the production of the show for every one who turns up at auditions. “It’s a great outlet for [kids] when academics might not be their strongest suit … It builds a lot of friendships that never would have happened.”
Ron Recko, former president of the Chestnut Hill Community Association, is the executive producer of “The Little Mermaid.” According to Paulino, “Ron has raised almost $700 for us! He’s been amazing. I think his next step will be Broadway!”
Tickets to “Mermaid” are $8 in advance, $10 at the door and $5 for children. For more information: 215-951-4006 or firstname.lastname@example.org