by Allison Hackman

Expecting to find a small cast and simple production, I was met with a spectacular surprise when I visited Charles W. Henry School to interview the music teacher and observe part of a rehearsal for this year’s show, “Aladdin Jr.” The air, full of palpable determination and remarkable focus, struck me more like a professional theater company than a grade-school musical production. 

Members of the Aladdin Jr. cast clockwise from left: Zahara Brown, Charles James, Olivia Williams and Alliyah Hoke.

As I sat down in the bustling hallway on a metal fold-out chair just outside the auditorium, I could feel the excitement mounting with the first performance quickly approaching.

The Performance & Production Process

About 50 students between the second and eighth grades participate in the annual production at Charles W. Henry School. Music teacher Nikki Paulino-Trisdorfer has led the theater program for over 10 years now. She acts as the director, choreographer, musical director, and producer. 

In addition to these roles, Paulino-Trisdorfer organizes the costumes, props and make-up. Amanda Johnson, the school’s art teacher, assists with the props and costumes, as well as designs the backdrops.

Down to the last step of choreography, Paulino-Trisdorfer runs a tight ship in full-fledged community theater-style. She selects each musical based on the interests of her students. “Aladdin Jr.” is an abridged version of the original and lasts about 65 minutes. 

After the three-day audition process in the fall, students take on a bulk of the responsibilities. Without any adults working backstage during the show, the sound and stage crews must prepare to run everything from start to finish.

Generally, Charles W. Henry School sells over 600 tickets. All of the proceeds go directly back to the theater program. This year, thanks to a Picasso Foundation grant, the school invited two other Philadelphia schools, a school from Abington, two day-care centers, and members of the Germantown Jewish Center to attend a free showing. 

A Community Effort

It takes about 200 hours to put on the show, including Paulino-Trisdorfer’s prep-time. The students average about 125 hours or about five hours after school a week for four months. For this year’s show, they started rehearsals in October. Truly a community effort, parents, teachers, faculty and residents all volunteer their time and resources. 

Al Grey Jr.,  founder of Outta Sight Inc. productions, has donated countless hours and resources to the school. He provides professional microphones, sound equipment and setup support. Thanks to the installation of permanent professional gear, students now have the opportunity to develop real-world skills using high-quality equipment. 

Dr. Ruth Farber, a now-retired community resident began volunteering this year. As the students’ “cheerleader,” she particularly enjoys helping them learn their lines and build their self-confidence before showtime.

Student-teacher Laura Plourde, currently studying music education at Temple University, acts as Paulino-Trisdorfer’s assistant. With an unmistakable passion for the arts, her uplifting attitude contributes to the empowering atmosphere at Charles W. Henry School.

It’s evident that both the students and supportive adults in this program grow together. 

“It is an honor and privilege to work with the students every year on the musical.” Paulino-Trisdorfer said. “There is no feeling like sitting back and watching students take ownership of their work. We become a family. This particular production makes me so proud; we overcame many obstacles to bring this show together and had a great time doing it.”

Support for Lifelong Learning

Historically, many Philadelphia school districts have suffered from depleting funds and lack of support. Often, music and arts programs fall first when cutbacks strike. Paulino-Trisdorfer recognizes the reality of these challenges and has experienced it herself in the past. 

However, over at Charles W. Henry School today, the music and arts thrive. Thanks to district-wide support, this flourishing program shows what’s possible with the proper resources and support.

Paulino-Trisdorfer views theater as a “holistic approach to learning about life.” In her experience, the students’ passion to succeed in the play extends beyond the theater to their academic work and lives in general. The students don’t just learn how to sing and dance, but as Farber puts it, they learn teamwork, persistence, resiliency, and grit.

It’s clear these learning opportunities are not lost on the students. 

“I like being in the musical program because it gives me a chance to sing and dance with my friends.”said sixth grader Charles James, “All the students get to learn to work together. We see how much time and practice it takes to put on a show.” 

“I have a different way to express myself with some pretty cool people,” said sixth-grade student Xavier Lovett. 

Seventh-grade cast member Jaylen Washington said:  “There are many different types of cultures and religions that are expressed through music. I also think that it is really cool that the roles in the musical are not gender-based. Throughout the years that I have attended Henry, I have really learned to express myself through music and the musicals. I would like to thank Ms. Paulino and the entire cast of the musical ‘Aladdin.’ I can’t wait for you guys to see the show!”

All the students write their bios for the playbook, which another teacher named Kim Smith puts together. This year, Smith helped the students fundraise for the play with a snack sale. Again, primarily student-run, this experience further teaches students budgeting, fundraising and organizational skills. Thanks to their efforts, this year’s playbooks will be printed in color. 

The cycle of learning goes beyond graduation too. Student alumni come back to complete volunteer service-learning hours while attending high school. 

These formative experiences give students opportunities to develop life-skills and self-esteem they will carry with them long after they leave.

Showtime & Ticket Information

Opening night is Friday, Feb. 28, at 7 p.m. Then, on Saturday, there will be two additional shows, one at 11 a.m., and the final performance at 3 p.m. Adults tickets cost $10 and tickets for children 14 and under cost $5. You can purchase tickets on Charles W. Henry School’s website, henry.philasd.org.

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