Hannibal Middle School Theater Club's 'HONK Jr.' musical blends fun, inspiring message this weekend

Members of the Hannibal Middle School Theater Club have been working since the fall season to bring magic and a positive message through their musical presentation of “HONK Jr.” from Friday, March 8 to Sunday, March 10 in the HMS Auditorium.

Director Stacey Mueller described the process as a “labor of love since November.”

Each student prepared a vocal and reading audition for the roles of the lighthearted musical, “HONK Jr.” based on Hans Christian Anderson's “The Ugly Duckling.” She picked the show, because she said it was “near to my heart” and delivered a positive message.

“I felt that it sends the perfect message to middle school children, because it celebrates being different, being unique, being special and embracing that,” she said. “I feel like it's the best message that they need at this stage.”

On Wednesday, students were in full makeup and costumes and had their hair styled for the first time, as they rehearsed each scene amid colorful backdrops. Mueller commended the community’s support for making it all come together.

“We have been very blessed by the Hannibal Middle School PTSO and the James O'Donnell Funeral Home,” she said. “They provided our gigantic backdrop and our little screen backdrops that we're using.”

Mueller said that those contributions, along with the wooden eggs made by her husband, Mark, dissuaded her biggest fear during her first year as solo director — the set. And she said the “cast of amazing kids” displayed their dedication from the beginning.

“They have put so much heart into this,” she said. “I'd say 'would you try this for me' or 'could you sing this,' and they give me 100 percent. They're constantly working and it's just amazing.”

The students practiced for at least an hour, four to five days each week since November, and the students said they enjoyed stepping into their characters throughout the process.

Seventh grade student Madelyn Johnson plays the character of “Bullfrog,” and she said she gets to crack jokes throughout the performance, and she enjoys hearing laughs coming from behind stage. After months of hard work, Madelyn said the results were exciting.

“It's really cool, it's awesome to be able to see all of the characters come together,” she said.

Seventh grader Lanie Privett said taking on the role of “Penny” the swan was rewarding. She meets “Ugly,” who untangles her from a net. She said that Penny sees Ugly's compassion when others were critical, and their bond grows stronger throughout the musical. Lanie agreed with Mueller about the importance of the message being shared.

“It's great to teach kids and adults the blessings that are hidden in the story, and it's just an amazing opportunity,” she said.

Sixth grade student Ava Bonvillian, who plays the role of the baby goose, “Snowy,” felt that the production highlighted the beauty inside people once you get to know them.

“It teaches people about how other people may be different, but in the end, they turn out to be the best people,” she said.

Ava said this is her first time acting in a production like this, and she described “Snowy” as a “goof-off” in the military. She remembered how her confidence grew with each rehearsal. At first, she wanted to play a quieter character, but she enjoyed the challenge of portraying Snowy’s loud, fun traits.

Eighth grader Katie Locke, who plays the antagonist, “Cat,” agreed it would be a light-hearted experience for families.

“I would expect it would be really fun for kids,” she said. “The whole thing is a musical — and you kind of bop the whole time — the songs are really catchy. And there's a few surprises that are just really funny.”

“I just love the character, because she's really sneaky and she's sly, and it's really fun to get into character,” Katie said.

Katie taunts and tries to eat “Ugly,” who is played by fellow eighth grader Garrett Heaton. Garrett said his third production at Hannibal Middle School has been a fun experience, recalling that memorizing all of his lines was probably the most challenging part.

“I just had a really great time,” he said.

Fellow eighth grader Kason Bonvillian plays a news reporter named “Jaybird.” He said he has fun in the role — “I get to push some characters around a little bit” and direct a camera crew. He said “Jaybird” as “ambitious” in his quest for the news, and Kason had high praise for his colleagues.

“I'm really impressed with the other actors in the play,” he said. “We've come really far.”

Seventh grade student Jack Myers plays “Greylag,” a military goose. “It's just a very fun, kind of juicy part,” he said. “I like it, because you get to take acting to its fullest.”

He said he focused on saying words “with a little bit of jazz” to fit his character's demeanor, and he joined fellow cast members in his excitement to share the production with the audience.

Eighth grade student Gavin Underhill plays the part of “Ugly's” initially unsupportive father, “Drake.” He said he looks forward to performing in his third production, and he was excited for the opportunity to take on a new type of character who becomes “pro-Ugly” in the end.

“I think it's going to be great,” he said.

Seventh grader Hailie Dalton takes on the role of “Ugly's” more supportive mother, “Ida.” She said that “Ugly” is ridiculed at first because of his appearance, but the other characters change their tune once they discover he grows into a swan.

“Everybody realizes they shouldn't judge a book by its cover,” she said.

Mueller said that students added a little more during various stages of their rehearsals, helping the students not to be anxious and to “embrace their character.” After adding costumes, makeup and hairstyles on Wednesday, the students rehearsed in full preparation for their upcoming weekend performances.

“It's really nice to stand out here and watch what's been in my head since last May,” she said. “They're all bringing it to life so beautifully.”

HONK Jr. will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday, March 8 and Saturday March 9 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 10 at the Hannibal Middle School Auditorium. Doors will open at 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 1 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are available for $5 for adults and $2 for children, with family packages for two adults and two or more children available for $12.

trevor.mcdonald@courierpost.com