Macy’s boosts Fort Frye play with $1,000

BEVERLY – The Fort Frye High School drama department is putting on its latest play with the help of an early Christmas present – a $1,000 grant from Macy’s.

The money was awarded to support the school’s production of “Yes Virginia the Musical,” which the department store chain is offering royalty-free this year to schools. One hundred schools were awarded grants to assist with the production, and Fort Frye drama teacher Alana Cunningham applied for one this summer.

The grants are intended to support and help get children involved in the arts, Cunningham said, so one of the stipulations was that elementary students had to be involved with the production. That’s why a baker’s dozen of Beverly-Center Elementary third-graders appear as dancing pigeons.

“They’ve been very enthusiastic,” Cunningham said. “I wasn’t sure if they’d think it was cool or not, but I guess being a pigeon is cool.”

The money from Macy’s helped pay for costumes for the children and other cast members, along with portions of the set. That allowed Cunningham and her students to focus on the play itself, rather than worrying about the financial aspect.

The play, which is being presented Friday and Sunday at the school, is based on the true story of Virginia O’Hanlon, who in 1897 wrote a letter to the New York Sun asking if Santa Claus was real. The newspaper response was an emphatic, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” linking the beloved figure to love, generosity and faith.

Fort Frye freshman Mary Kate McElroy plays the title role, a character with whom she said she identifies.

“I believed in Santa for a really long time,” she said. “I really like how (Virginia) thinks. … I think we’re a lot alike in terms of personality.”

McElroy has performed before in plays at her church, but this production is on a larger scale and will have a bigger audience. Still, she’s not intimidated.

“I’m not really the nervous type,” she said.

Neither is senior Drew Layton, making his drama department debut as Virginia’s young friend Ollie. He admitted to some nerves, but said playing in front of large crowds as a member of the Cadet football team helped prepare him for performing in front of an audience for the first time.

“Really the only people that I’ve (sung) in front of are my family and the people here,” Layton said.

Senior Samantha Tilton is a veteran of plays in the drama department and elsewhere who plans to major in musical theater in college. She plays Charlotte, “the mean one that tells (Virginia) Santa isn’t real.”

Tilton finds it amusing, and fun, that she keeps landing the mean roles, playing Sleeping Beauty nemesis Maleficent last year.

“It’s completely opposite my personality, so I love it,” she said.

Senior Phoebe Thompson is Miriam the librarian, both the narrator and a character in the story. She said performing the last three years has helped her overcome anxiety about speaking and singing in public.

“Once you get up on stage, it kind of opens up stuff in you,” she said. “You can be weird, and nobody really makes fun of you.”

The first chance for the public to see the play is 7 p.m. Friday, starting with performances by the Fort Frye band and choir, Stacey’s Dance Studio and others. After an intermission with refreshments, the play itself begins. There is also a matinee of just the play at 3 p.m. Sunday.