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Kenai middle schoolers switch out stage for screen

Kenai Middle School Drama

Kenai Middle School is rolling out the red carpet for its student actors. That’s because this spring, they’re also movie stars.


The school’s drama department is putting on a silver screen rendition of "The Lion King Jr.," which premiered Thursday. Starting Friday, it'll be available for scheduled streaming online.

The department did a play over Zoom last semester. But Director Brian Lyke wanted to try something new.

They decided on a movie back in December, when they knew they'd be returning to in-person instruction.

“I lept at it. I was like, 'OK, we're going to have bodies in front of us, we don't know how long we'll have bodies in front of us, but we've got to take a run at this,'" he said. "If it's a movie, we can share it and even if we’re social distancing, if we’re all locked down again, people can be in their houses having that connection to the school."

The department held a fundraiser to get sound recording equipment and Lyke bought a new camera. The movie was filmed entirely at Kenai Middle School, starting with the “Circle of Life” opener on the school's roof and in the cafeteria.

Cast members wore masks, even in some solo scenes where they weren’t required. In that way, it’s a real snapshot of the time.

“This is a pandemic musical, it really is," Lyke said. "And I keep wondering what people will think when they see this in 10 years. Like, 'Oh, that was a strange time.’”

Sylvia McGraw is one of the 25 student actors in the show. She plays Zazu, the red-billed hornbill who’s a royal advisor to the king.

Zazu also has a British accent. McGraw said she’s been practicing her accents since she was a kid.

“And so for a while I’ve known that I can do an accent," she said. "And then when I heard that they were doing Lion King, I was really excited to use it.”

She said it was a little weird to get used to acting into the camera at first. But by the end, it felt natural. 

McGraw and her castmates have already seen their movie. Like anyone who has to watch themselves on screen, she cringed a little at first. 

“And then I was like, But it’s not really me. You know? So it’s more of a relaxed feeling and you kind of just get to enjoy it," she said. "It’s more of a persona.”

Then, of course, there’s the show’s epic soundtrack.

Tammy Vollom-Matturro is the music director.

"I taught the vocals for this over Zoom," she said. "For the whole time.”

Vollom-Matturro said the kids learned Zulu for some of the songs.

“And these numbers that they were able to pull off are very challenging musically," she said. "Extremely challenging. And they rose to the occasion and they did it.”

There’s a little more flexibility in shooting a movie than performing a live show, with room for redos and multiple takes. Lyke said they also used lighting and camera angles to make some of the kids look larger than life. 

“What I’m hoping that this video does is just give these kids a chance to see themselves as awesome as I see them," he said. "As awesome as I think other people see them. To let them be that big screen hero for a minute.”

McGraw said the feeling she had before the premiere Thursday was hard to describe. On one hand, she was excited to share the movie with everyone. But she said the cast is also already feeling a bit of the post-show blues.

“That was such a great process to go through filming it," she said. "And it was such a new process for everyone. In the beginning we were all like, ‘How are we going to do this?’ But in the end we were like, ‘We did this. We figured it out. That's amazing.' But it’s over.”

For the audience, it's just beginning. Visit for tickets to scheduled streams of the production. Tickets are free but the department is encouraging donations.

And like any true film, this one has a trailer. You can watch that here.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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