By Beth Donze
At a recent rehearsal of the St. Pius X Players, a family-fueled theater ministry based at the eponymous Lake Vista church, members of the cast and crew chipped away at the monumental to-do list behind their latest production: a modern Broadway adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.”
In one corner of the gym, a boy handed his father tools as the two assembled the wheeled framework that would become the “pumpkin carriage” pulled by actors dressed as palomino horses.
In the cafeteria, faux fur was flying as seamstresses made rabbit, mouse, fox, raccoon and songbird costumes for their children and grandchildren. Clothing racks holding more than 100 finished garments told the story of Cinderella’s two worlds: the one of peasant attire, the other of sparkly ball gowns and royal footmen.
On the gym stage, director Kenneth Beck took a dozen teenage boys through the choreography for the song “Me, Who Am I?” in which Prince Topher ponders his pending kingship, surrounded by his knights and squires.
For more than 20 years, the goal of the unique drama ministry has been to bring families together for six weeks every summer for the grueling yet satisfying work of musical theater.
“It fosters family life – families working together and playing together, as opposed to the kids doing things in the summer and the parents just sitting on the sidelines,” said veteran Pius Player and St. Pius choir member Jo’Leigh Monteverde, recalling her role as a chorus member in the Players’ inaugural 1994 production of “The Music Man.” Monteverde’s two younger sons went on to act alongside her in three musicals, while her eldest son found his niche operating the lights.
Monteverde’s work on “Cinderella” had her scaling an 8-foot ladder to transform a blank, 8-by-12-foot canvas into a vital piece of the set: a giant “Cinderella” storybook cover that will open up to reveal the town square.
Although she had to take a few years off from the Players to attend to work responsibilities, Monteverde remains a dedicated member years after her sons aged out of their interest. In 2015, she decked scenery flats with sea anemones and starfish for the Players’ glittering production of “The Little Mermaid”; last summer, she painted shields onto the proscenium for “The Lion King.”
“It’s just fun,” Monteverde said. “I come back for the sheer enjoyment of it – the enjoyment of the music, the camaraderie of the people.”
Respected in community
The Players were founded by Nancy Kearney and her late husband Bob, St. Pius choir members and local actors who were looking for ways to stay engaged in the performing arts with their friends and family. With the support of St. Pius’ late pastor, Msgr. Clinton Doskey, and current pastor, Father Patrick Williams, the troupe has drawn praise in the local theater community for its high-quality mountings of favorites such as “My Fair Lady,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Oliver!” “The King and I,” Fiddler on the Roof,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Sound of Music,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and “South Pacific.”
Although the ministry bears the name of its home church and draws most of its members from St. Pius X Parish and School, participation is open to any individual or family who wants to audition for onstage roles or assist behind the scenes.
Nourishes family life
A desire to learn new skills together and bond with other theater-loving families has drawn Transfiguration of the Lord parishioners Paul and Mary Beth Fine to the Players for the past three summers. Four of the Fines’ five children are involved in “Cinderella”: Patrick, 20, is a set builder and stagehand; William, 18, painted the wings of the stage and created the stucco texture on Cinderella’s cottage; Michael Paul, 13, runs the music on the computer; and cast member Kathryn, 11, is a lady-in-waiting and townsperson.
“Some people send away their kids to summer camp; this is our summer camp – our whole family goes to summer camp,” Paul said, noting that the Players are known for coaxing participants out of their comfort zones. In his case, that meant creating the armor for Prince Topher’s horse, using fabric, pins and a glue gun.
Patrick, a Jesuit graduate and senior accounting major at the University of Notre Dame, expanded his own skill set this summer by wiring the electrical circuitry board that will light up a palace balcony. The Fines, who last summer worked as a family to apply papier-mâché to countless masks and shields for “The Lion King,” were assigned another group project for “Cinderella”: embellishing a chandelier with strands of beads to make the piece more befitting of a royal ballroom.
“(The Pius Players) is the one thing we can all do together; we don’t all need to be doing the same job, but we’re all here together,” Mary Beth said. “And the people who work on the play are very lovely people, as well as very talented, so we learn different things that we wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to.”
Director lauds parish’s spirit
“Cinderella” marks director Beck’s third “Players” musical. Beck, a Big Easy Award-winning performer, choreographer and director – and an attorney by day – said the working atmosphere at St. Pius is the most congenial and collaborative he has encountered in his 37 years as a director.
“The community that Father Pat has built here is just amazing. The parental support and the work ethic of the parents working with their children and alongside their children – building costumes, building sets, painting sets – is like nothing I’ve ever experienced anywhere in the city,” said Beck, pointing to unsolicited acts of kindness such as teens helping younger cast members with their dance steps, a mother who scoured thrift stores to purchase a silver tea set to offer as a prop, and another mother who polished the set back to life.
Performing chops exercised
Beck has seen talents sprout and grow over his three summers with the ministry. There are the boys and girls who are inspired to take ballet classes after dancing in their first show, and the children who suddenly discover they can harmonize after working with the Players’ music director, Donna Clavijo.
“We’re bringing in (actors) who are maybe not the leads in their high school plays and giving them the opportunity to get a lead role here, where the competition may not be as stiff,” Beck said. “And then they grow into leads as the result of their work here.”
Families of thespians
Relatives acting together this summer include a trio of sisters, two brother-and-sister duos, a father and daughter and an aunt and niece.
Sue and Lucy Sabrio are a grandmother-granddaughter acting pair – Sue a St. Pius choir member known for her sparkling soprano, Lucy a St. Dominic second grader coincidentally cast as a mouse.
“I’m the Fairy Godmother, so I have to change the mice into horses,” said Sue, a New Orleans native whose acting résumé includes summer musicals produced by the Texas university where she taught math. When Sabrio retired to New Orleans in 2014, she wanted to continue with her theater hobby but was bowled over by the “enormous” caliber of local talent.
“I said, well, I don’t think I’m ready for some of the other venues, but we knew the Pius Players through church,” said Sabrio, who was looking forward to a special onstage moment with her granddaughter.
“There are two little mice behind the cottage and I have to stoop down and get them to come to me,” Sabrio said. “I just kind of pat them and push them behind stage and then the horses come out. It’s darling because they both come out with these big smiles on their faces!”
Growing, then sharing gifts
Third-year executive producers Ben and Camey Grau said that what makes the Players a “nice fit” is the variety of jobs on tap. The St. Pius couple and their two children joined the Players
in 2014 as cast and crew members of “Peter Pan.”
“There might be a kid who doesn’t want to be in the spotlight, but he can sit in a tower and point a light; or there’s a kid who doesn’t know how to sing and dance, but he can understand music and run the orchestral score,” Camey said. “So it’s not so much of a reach to have multiple people in a family involved because there’s something everyone can do.”
Ben said the Players present a wonderful opportunity to those who might think they are past their “drama years” to dive in again while spending quality time with their children. For “Cinderella,” Ben oversees the set and special effects, Camey coordinates the costumes and their children are cast members.
“Part of our mission statement is developing all of our God-given talents. We all have different ways of giving those talents – some of us can be onstage and some of us can do things backstage,” Ben said. “Bringing all those talents together to entertain the community is fabulous. I can’t think of a better Christian ministry than that.”
“Cinderella,” updated for modern audiences with several new characters, including a sympathetic stepsister, runs July 21-22 at 7:30 p.m.; July 23 at 2:30 p.m.; July 27-28 at 7:30 p.m.; and July 29 at 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., at St. Pius X’s Father A.T. Screen Gym, 6666 Spanish Fort Blvd. Tickets, available in advance or at the door, are $18 for reserved seats and $12 for general admission. Visit stpiusxnola.org/pius-players.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.