Western Union students say ‘yes’ to Virginia

WAXHAW – Thirty-one students at Western Union Elementary School will soon take the stage in a musical production intended to spread the spirit of the holiday season – and raise funds for a school music program.

Western Union will host three performances of “Yes, Virginia: The Musical” on Dec. 5 and 6, Thursday and Friday, at 6 p.m. and on Dec. 7, a Saturday, at 3 p.m. All performances will be free and open to the public and take place in the school auditorium at 4111 Western Union School Road.

This is Western Union’s first full musical in at least six years, music teacher and show director Evan Stevens said. Stevens started teaching at Western Union at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year and has devoted some of his time to researching and applying for various grants to enhance the school’s music program.

Stevens learned about a grant through Macy’s that helps schools with the financial burden of putting together a stage musical – specifically “Yes, Virginia.” As soon as he heard about the opportunity, Stevens jumped at the idea and applied immediately, not knowing whether Western Union would be selected or not.

“I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot. Why not?’ A week to a week and a half later, I got (a letter) in the mail (saying) we’d gotten the grant,” Stevens said.

Western Union was one of 100 schools nationwide to receive the Macy’s grant, which helps schools with production costs including royalty and licensing fees. Though he was excited about receiving the grant, Stevens faced a new challenge – putting together a musical theater production for the first time.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I guess we’re doing a theater production.’ I’d never done musical theater before, at all,” he admitted, adding he is a percussionist and not a vocalist and has more experience working with high school bands.

Luckily, Stevens received support from fellow staff members at Western Union. Third-grade teacher Angela Hill, who has experience with drama productions, stepped up to help students with acting. Another third-grade teacher, Chris Lacy, who sings and plays piano, pitched in to help with the musical numbers.

“I was a percussionist thrown into musical theater. Thankfully, I had a singer in Lacy and a dramatist in Angela,” Stevens said.

Hill, along with a school parent, Jennifer Jaurequi, also helped sew and collect items for some of the costumes, and has joined forces with art teacher Caroline Turner to create the set – both fashioned to reflect the show’s late 19th century setting.

“Yes, Virginia” is based on the true story of 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, who wrote a letter to the New York Sun in 1897 asking if Santa Claus existed, and editor Francis Church’s famous response. The students take on the roles of Virginia, Church and others and will perform a total of 20 musical numbers in costume during the production.

While Stevens said the musical will give the students a chance to shine, he added it will serve two greater purposes – supporting charities and helping fund the school’s west African percussion program. The Macy’s grant program supports the Macy’s Believe Campaign, as well as nonprofits Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, The Actors Fund and UNICEF. And though the show is free to attend, Stevens hopes to collect donations during the performances to help the school purchase eight west African percussion instruments.

Western Union recently launched its west African percussion program after Stevens received grants from the Union County Education Foundation and the Union County Community Arts Council, which have helped the school purchase nine west African percussion instruments. Stevens said his goal is to have 17 total drums – an entire classroom set – to use both in his classes and with a drum therapy program launched last year.

Stevens also will help direct the school’s winter concert, “The Many Sides of the Holidays,” on Dec. 12, a Thursday, at 6 p.m. at the school. He hopes the concert and “Yes, Virginia” will reflect the sense of community he loves about Western Union – a school he calls “the best kept secret in Union County.”

“These kids are wonderful. I absolutely love my career, and this is the very best place I could’ve gone to teach … It’s a heartfelt community, and I think that’s going to show at the performance,” he said.

Find more information on how to support Stevens’ efforts to bring west African percussion instruments to Western Union at www.donorschoose.org/evan.stevens.

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