By Chris Boyle
Westbury High School students have been working hard to prepare for their upcoming musical production. This weekend, the talented students will put on two performances of the classic rock musical, Little Shop of Horrors. A comic tale of a man-eating plant from outer space that lands in an unassuming floral shop and begins its plans for world domination, Little Shop of Horrors is not only a popular story that has been adapted into film, but it’s turning out to be the proving ground for Westbury High School’s brand-new musical director as well.
Nadine Schalk, orchestra director of Westbury High School, ended up wearing another professional hat when Linda Murtagh, long-time Westbury High School musical director, announced her retirement last year. With the position left open and the school facing the very real possibility of no musical production for the school year, Schalk volunteered to take on the additional role at the urging of one of her students.
“Honestly, it’s been fun,” she said. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted to try out, and I like getting to work with the students in this way and have them get to see me in a different light. They always see me teaching, but now I can show them a different, creative side.”
“It’s a different way of interacting with them, and showing them that you don’t just have to be one thing,” Schalk added. “You can be great at many different things.”
Schalk described the production thus far as “bumpy,” but credited the hard, fast, and furious work of all involved in keeping everything on-track and on-schedule for the show’s opening; she said that she has been collaborating with the art department in the construction of the sets and that the various puppets of Audrey II, the extraterrestrial talking plant, are rented professional props.
“The original company we had rented the Audrey II puppets from emailed me on Monday and told me they had accidentally rented them to someone else,” she said. “However, MCI, the place where we got the licensing rights from to put on the play to begin with, still had their Audrey II puppets, so we were able to rent them from them.”
Playing the lead character of Seymour, the hapless owner of the floral shop where the blood-thirsty alien plant has taken up residence, isn’t your typical drama student. But when Carlos Valle Diaz, a member of Westbury’s wrestling team tried out for the part on a whim, he nailed it.
“I had approached Carlos about being the alien plant’s puppeteer, and he asked if he could actually audition for a part,” Schalk said. “He came in, sang, and he WAS Seymour. It was so amazing!”
Sophomore Valle Diaz finds himself the lead actor in his very first production ever, and as opening night looms, it appears that the reality still hasn’t quite sunk in to the young man, who’s normally more at home on a mat than a stage.
“I just figured, why not just try out for the play?” Valle Diaz said. “But compared to being on the wrestling team, this is havoc, complete havoc. Having to learn lines and songs, I have a lot of things to do. But I’m really enjoying it, and I might do it again next year.”
According to Schalk, senior Ashley Hope Villanueva was the largest driving force behind this year’s play becoming a reality after the departure of Murtagh. A budding actress, Villanueva has hopes of going on to college and a career in acting, but she said that she felt like she needed one more go-round on the Westbury stage before she would be ready.
“It was important to me because, when I originally entered this school, I was very shy and unable to express myself,” she said. “But Ms. Murtagh was really able to bring out the best in me, and she showed me how drama can be expressive. This year, when I first heard that we might not have a play, I felt really sad, because I wanted one more play to show off my talents and my strength.”
Villanueva, who plays Crystal in Little Shop of Horrors, said that Schalk was turning out to be an excellent successor to Murtagh thus far.
“She’s doing a great job,” Villanueva said. “Ms. Murtagh was someone that I looked up to, and for Ms. Schalk to have the courage to step up and fill her shoes…she’s doing an amazing job.”
Freshman Andrea Argueta fills some eclectic roles in the production playing Bum #1, Customer #1, and Skip Snip. She said that Little Shop of Horrors marks her very first time on the stage.
“It’s been a really fun experience,” Argueta said. “I’ve met a lot of new people. I’m normally very shy and reserved, so coming out here with them helped loosen me up. Plus, I have stage fright, and this has helped me come out of it.”
Schalk admits that standing in the shadow of her predecessor is shaping up to be a daunting task; however, she said she relishes the opportunity, and is hoping that this year marks the first of many more productions to come for Westbury High School.
“I have a bunch of first-timers doing this musical, and they have really been fantastic,” Schalk said. “A lot of the other kids were very used to Ms. Murtagh, and they wondered if I was up to it, but we’ve all realized that we’re here for the same reason, and that’s to put on the very best play that we possibly can. So, I’m very optimistic, and I can’t want to see the final product of all our hard work.”
Little Shop of Horrors comes to the Westbury High School stage on April 4 and 5 at 7 p.m. For advance tickets, call 516-874-1137.