Student performers return to Wheeler in full force |

Student performers return to Wheeler in full force

After pandemic hiatuses and delays, hundreds of kids are back on the stage

Aspen Community School students rehearse for their all-school musical, "The Magic Treehouse: Dancing Through the Decades" at the Wheeler Opera House on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.
Kaya Williams/The Aspen Times

Performers started to make their way back in front of audiences the Wheeler Opera House last June, when the Aspen institution reopened its doors for the first time in 15 long pandemic months. Soon, musicians were back onstage, as were actors, comedians and dancers, and features, short films and opera broadcasts were back on the screen, with ticketholders there to see them.

But there’s still one cohort members the general public haven’t had the chance to see on the Wheeler stage since early 2020: children. This spring, audiences can once again see them perform, too. Lots of them.

Nearly half a dozen young singers and instrumentalists from throughout the Roaring Fork Valley performed Saturday for the “Aspen Rocks” music competition. Another 135 students from the Aspen Community School have filled the venue this week, preparing for their original musical “The Magic Treehouse: Dancing Through the Decades.” The show debuted Thursday and wraps up Friday. And in a few weeks, 167 more students from Aspen Country Day School will perform in “Starstruck,” a musical written by the eighth graders, on May 20-21.

“It’s a little bit of a homecoming, and I think they light up a lot more when they’re in this space,” said Aspen Community School teacher Garry Pfaffmann, who has written and directed the show for seven years.

Community School students have been performing their annual musical for nearly three-and-a-half decades at the Wheeler, but the kids haven’t been here since the spring of 2019. Last year, back on campus, they produced a pre-recorded show instead.

Aspen Country Day School students were the last young performers to take to the stage en masse for the general public at the Wheeler before COVID-19 turned live performances upside down. Student performances from Aspen Country Day also have a lengthy history at the Wheeler, dating back to 1989.

The fully-fledged show, called “Uncovered,” happened in late January 2020; normally their production is staged in the spring, but they had moved the date up to work around some renovations at the Wheeler, according to an email from Carolyn Hines, the school’s director of communications.

Marci Sketch, the school’s longtime drama teacher, said she considers it a lucky fluke that they made it onstage just in the nick of time.

Aspen Country Day School did get the chance to perform a modified show in May of 2021, with pre-recorded components from some grades and live acting from sixth, seventh and eighth graders, according to Sketch. The only people allowed in the audience were parents of eighth graders; they sat masked up, distanced and in the balcony, Sketch said.

(Also last May, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet School performed and filmed student recitals on the Wheeler stage without an audience, according to an email from Nicole Levesque, the marketing manager for the opera house. This year, students from the school will perform at the District Theater.)

Performing at the Wheeler raises the bar for these young performers, according to Pfaffmann and Sketch.

“Once they get there, they’re kind of treated as actors,” Sketch said. “And the people that are at the Wheeler running the lights, the sound person — they talk to the kids as if they’re professionals … and they’re just introduced to that world as if that’s their life.”

The finalists at the inaugural “Aspen Rocks” competition last weekend certainly felt the weight of it.

First-place Kendall Vivanco, a 13-year-old singer and pianist from Two Rivers Community School, said she had a hard time believing the “amazing” experience. Second-place Gracie Feinberg, a 14-year-old singer and guitarist from Aspen who attends the Interlochen School for the Arts in Michigan, said performing in her “home arena” was “definitely scary” — but also a “natural high.”

For third-place Dante Clark, a 13-year-old singer from Aspen Middle School, the Wheeler was in a league of its own. (It was his first time onstage here but not his first before a large audience; Clark also sang at the Benedict Music Tent in “South Pacific” a few summers back.)

“I feel like the Wheeler Opera House had more meaning behind it, because the Wheeler Opera House is such a big name … a staple in Aspen,” Clark said.

That kind of experience can make an impact, said Aspen Community School Principal Casey White.

“I think it settles in their memories,” she said.