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Emma Takes to the Stage at UPHS
Written by Ernie Quatrani, Correspondent
2024-03-06

'Jukebox musical' features contemporary pop songs

 

            Emma seems like someone we all knew in high school.       

            Which is exactly where "Emma! A Pop Musical" places the main character in this weekend's Upper Perkiomen Drama Club's production on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon.

Alexa Sefing, who plays the female lead Emma Woodhouse

and co-star Bryce Shanafelt, who plays the male lead Jeff

Knightly, perform during the final ensemble.

            The fictional Highbury Prep serves as the backdrop for Emma, the "It" girl who had it all and felt entitled to look down her nose at her "inferiors" and meddle in their lives.

            The musical is based on English author Jane Austen's 1815 novel "Emma".  Austen's story is built around the title character, a person Austen described as a "heroine whom no one but myself will much like."

            Spoiled, smug, stubborn, Austen's Emma fancied herself a matchmaker without peer in the English town of Highbury.

            Alexa Sefing, who plays Emma on the Upper Perk stage, initially felt uncomfortable playing a character the diametric opposite of her own personality.

            "I definitely just had to keep reminding myself that I am not Emma, so when she says some very unaware things, it's not me," Sefing explained.

            "I think the lines themselves like, 'oh you shouldn't get with Martin because

Autumn Alderfer, playing the role of Harriet

Smith, sings "Bad, Bad, Crush".

he's poor', probably is the unlikable part of her."

            Director Alicia Austin found teaching moments in exploring Emma's perspective with Sefing–and the cast as a whole.

            "[Alexa] really struggled with someone who is so bright being unable to recognize the way she was treating people wasn't appropriate and that she had these biases based on class."

            But like many of the so-called perfect people we knew back in the day, Emma is dealing with her own–initially unrevealed–issues that the audience can sympathize with.

            And that was Sefing's other challenge, figuring out how to make Emma unlikable and likable at the same time.

            "She's just wildly unaware in the beginning," Sefing said, "but hopefully you can see throughout the show she gains awareness, mostly about herself."

            Sefing was not the only one who had to work hard to play a character foreign to her real-life experience. Austin and her staff spent a lot of time discussing sociological themes, including the results of socio-economic surveys given to the cast, and they even offered lessons on how to hold hands and how to flirt.

            "They all picked different levels of affluence to kind of recognize that these kids aren't like kids at Upper Perk," Austin said. "[The Highbury Prep students] are kids who are coming from a different strata of money who think of the world differently because everyone around them has enough money to afford to go to a private school."

            Autumn Alderfer plays Harriet, and she, too, talked about the complexity of her role.

Rowan Shelly, in the center portraying Jane Fairfax, a teen considering transferring

to Highbury - leads a small group in the performance of "Girls Just Want to Have

Fun".

            "The hardest part was trying to figure out my character, who Harriet is," said Alderfer, "She's both shy and confident at the same time. Very nuanced."

            Alderfer found a kindred spirit in Harriet. "Every rehearsal has felt like an absolute moment of catharsis for me where I got to just express everything that I had pent-up inside me that I didn't even know I had."

            The scene featuring one of the original songs in the play, "Bad, Bad Crush", was a revelation to Alderfer. "It was like I was a whole new person. It was like I was becoming a butterfly from a caterpillar. I was metamorphizing."

            Austin described the play as a "jukebox musical", featuring music from top female artists such as Katy Perry, Shania Twain, Whitney Houston, and The Supremes. The tunes help to convey the themes of the production.

            Bryce Shanafelt, who plays the male lead, Jeff Knightly, noted that the music helped to explain and fill out his developing relationship with Emma.

            "The music adds a lot of emotion to the show," Shanafelt said.

            The character of Jeff Knightly, a brilliant 12th-grader, is in the unusual position of being both a student and a substitute science teacher at Highbury.

            "He's really smart, but he also is kind of confused about love and personal relationships,"

            Shanafelt said. "Developing that is really interesting. It's going to be interesting for the audience."

            To give the musical the feel of a bustling high school, the ensemble cast is on stage for about three-quarters of the production

            Sarah Fisher, a member of the ensemble, summed up the task of being on stage that often.

            "Maybe my biggest challenge is probably learning the songs," said Fisher, "because you have all of these pop songs I've known before, but I got to see the background of it."

            Austin has had a great time working with this year's cast and crew–which numbers close to 70 people–and is proud of the final product that will be on stage this weekend.

            "It's just a fun show. It's shorter than most musicals. It runs like an hour and 45 minutes. It's a feel-good, funny show. If people are just looking for a little bit of levity in the world, this is a great opportunity to come out and support the high school."

            Tickets are available through the school district's website (upsd.org) or can be purchased at the door.

            On Thursday, Friday and Saturday, the musical starts at 7 p.m. The curtain goes up on Sunday's matinee at 2 p.m.


 

 

 

 

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