Drama Club Receives Williams Grant Ahead Of School Musical

Students gather around the edge of the Washington stage during a post-rehearsal talk with director Marie Karbacka.

There’s something cosmic about working at Washington Middle School for music teacher Marie Karbacka.

“I’m filling big, big shoes — and I’m so fortunate for that,” she said.

The daughter of the school’s retired longtime orchestra teacher, Nina, and a former student of each of the building’s music ensembles, led for years by Mark Alpaugh, Nina Karbacka, and Andrew Coccaignia prior to their 2019 retirement, Karbacka is more than familiar with the storied tradition of promoting the performing arts on Jamestown’s northside — specifically the drama club’s annual musical.

And, in her opinion, few embodied that tradition like Jason Williams.

Williams, a beloved English teacher and co-director of the musical, dedicated his entire professional life to helping children at Washington have artistic outlets through which they could channel their talents. A noted area performer outside of school and beloved friend to many, he passed away suddenly in 2019 at the age of 40.

Students in Washington Middle School’s production of “The Little Mermaid, Jr.” pose and smile during a rehearsal of the number “Under the Sea.” The show will be presented March 23 and 24 in the Washington auditorium at 7 p.m.

“Jason and I grew up together,” said Karbacka. “I knew him since I was a tiny child. When I took over that next school year, I pitched to our production team the idea of doing ‘The Wizard of Oz’ with the kids and the team got emotional: it was the same show that Jason had planned on doing that school year.”

To continue his legacy, Williams’ parents, Carl and Diane, established the Jason M. Williams Fund for the Performing Arts at the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation last June. The fund aims to support performing arts programs at Jamestown Public Schools.

Fittingly, the Washington drama club will be the fund’s first recipient for their production of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Jr.” on March 23 and 24 at 7 p.m. in the school’s auditorium.

“It’s such an honor receiving the grant this year and I’m so grateful to Carl, Diane, and Jason’s family for making this possible for us,” Karbacka said. “It’s a great opportunity and I really appreciate the family wanting the money to go to us first.”

“It has been a privilege to work with the Williams Family to find the right way to remember Jason,” said Tory Irgang, CRCF Executive Director. “This Fund to benefit the musical productions in Jamestown Public Schools, and this year at Washington Middle School, accomplished that goal. It takes a village to help bring a musical to life and this fund will help cover the expenses necessary to make them happen, just like Jason and his family did when he was involved with the productions.”

Based on the classic Disney animated film, “The Little Mermaid, Jr.,” is set in a magical underwater kingdom, where the beautiful young mermaid, Ariel, longs to leave her ocean home — and her fins — behind to live in the world above as she defies her father, King Triton, to make a deal with the evil sea witch, Ursula, and convince the handsome Prince Eric that she’s the girl whose enchanting voice he’s been seeking.

“We were looking at several shows over the summer. We looked at who we had and really felt that it would fit the students we had right now,” Karbacka said. “As a ’90s child, I grew up with this movie and I know it very, very well. However, many of our younger students had never seen it. Part of their homework was to go home and watch the movie. A lot of them also went home and found many of the stage productions online that had been performed as well.”

Karbacka and her production team made the decision to double-cast the role of Ariel. Eighth graders Ryleigh Johnston and Lillian Stormont are living out a dream to play the beloved Disney character.

“It’s been amazing,” Johnston said of the experience. “I was really interested in being Ariel because I saw The Little Mermaid at the high school in 2016 and it was amazing. It’s a dream come true to be able to play her in this production.”

Stormont has also enjoyed the experience, as well as the opportunity to be involved in the musical.

“I’ve been involved all four years and I’ve been able to make a bunch of new friends,” she said. “I even got a couple people to join this year!”

Seventh grader Colton Miller plays Prince Eric and has really appreciated the opportunity to try new things as a member of the musical.

“Last year, I had done the musical and was really just trying things out,” he said. “This year, a lot of my friends were in it and I knew it was really fun last year so I just decided to do it again. There’s been more work this year: I have a few solos and songs, but it’s a good environment and a good learning environment.”

Fifth grader Gia Bell plays Sebastian the crab — a role she never envisioned she’d be able to play as a first-year middle school student.

“I was very surprised when I got Sebastian. This is my first lead role — I’ve been in other shows before, but this was the first. The songs are so fun to do. Ms. Karbacka is awesome so it’s been great to do my first show here.”

Also featured prominently in the show are a number of props, costumes, and sets that have been made possible thanks to the “incredible” production team that without whom, Karbacka said, the show wouldn’t be possible: Sheri Brandes, Kevin Kyser, Steve Moyer-Matteson, Andrew Pihlblad, Sebastian DiNapoli, Deb Rein, and Rachel Stowe.

“There are a lot of people working to bring this to life and I really couldn’t do it without them,” she said.

She also is hoping one person in particular would be proud of the school’s efforts.

“The connection with Jason — I feel like I’m being guided in the right direction and that’s thanks to him,” she said.

The students, meanwhile, look forward to showing their friends and family just how hard they’ve worked to put on this show.

Added Stormont: “We’ve really worked hard and there are so many people who deserve an audience who have never experienced having an audience watching them onstage. So many people should want to come and see this. We are so excited to put this on.”

Tickets for the production are $5 and can be purchased at the door or by calling 716-483-4413 ext 4403


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