Skip to main content

Sugar House Journal

Hillside students find their voice in ‘The Little Mermaid Jr.’

Mar 25, 2019 12h03 ● By Travis Barton

Famous characters like Ariel, Sebastian and Ursula were portrayed by Hillside Middle Students in dress rehearsals (seen here) before the performances in February. (Photo courtesy Nate Holcomb)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

There were costumes of glowing wings, mermaid tails, a lobster. Bubbles dripping from the ceiling, boats floating across the stage, and hundreds of students lining the stairs, walls and aisles of the Hillside Middle School auditorium. 

There was even an aerialist performing Cirque du Soleil-style on a hoop suspended high above the stage.

And those only add up to a tiny portion of “The Little Mermaid Jr.,” the school’s production that ran for six days at the end of February. 

“I am really, really proud of (the show),” said Director Nate Holcomb of his fifth production at the school. “It is by far the smoothest performance week and even rehearsal process for a show that I've ever had.” 

Whether that’s a sign of Holcomb’s experience or not, it’s still saying something considering he had almost 200 cast and crew (about one-third of the school), countless costume changes, students sprinting over 1 ¼ mile (he measured it) behind the scenes, and special effects. 

“It's still almost too good to be true,” he said of the performances. 

The show featured costumes and set pieces rented from a company in Sandy last summer. Ariel’s grotto of human things was recycled from their performance of “Shrek” three years prior. It’s where they could have fun hiding Disney Easter eggs like Mickey or Thanos’ infinity gauntlet, Holcomb said. 

Holcomb takes any student who wants to be part of the show. But with such a large cast, his greatest challenge is finding ways to utilize each member. Some were used to create moving scenery (the waves of the ocean), hop around stage as seagulls (they all keep shouting, “mine”), or were sailors on Prince Eric’s ship. Other moments see students in the aisles and on the stairs singing or flashing lights. 

“The little things make all the difference in the world,” Holcomb said. 

And the audience notices. Whether it’s Flotsam and Jetsam playing rock, paper, scissors on one side of the stage or students dancing in the aisles. One audience member told Holcomb their favorite moment was an ensemble student in the balcony section on the stairs. The student was acting as much, if not more, than the performers on stage, even though he was only seen by the back row. 

“That was my proudest moment…It just shows they put it all out there, they gave their all,” Holcomb said. “That's another reason that the show was so smooth because all of those kids were enjoying every single moment that they had.” 

The week of performances saw the kids spend an extra 68 hours at school. But it was all worth it, said seventh-grader Mary Lambert, who danced among other roles for the show. 

“There were a lot of hours and you got tired, but it was a really good experience being with people and putting all that work in. In the end it was very good,” she said. 

‘Mr. Nate’

Shortly after the production’s final performance, students, parents and administration praised both the show and the mastermind behind it—“Mr. Nate.”

“He does everything,” said Principal Jane Berntson. “He really gets into the mindset of these 12 and 13 year olds, makes them feel so important. Who does that? It's why they call him Nate the Great.”

Eighth-grader Zoey Manning, who played Ariel for half the shows (and had a set piece accidently run over her foot during the Friday night performance), said Holcomb is the “favorite teacher” and everyone looks forward to his classes. 

“It’s my favorite part of the day. He takes the stress from the other kids onto himself,” she said. “He’s just amazing, he makes everything fun, he makes everyone want to do the play every year. He's just one of those people you love to be around.” 

That ability to draw people in is what makes him so special, Berntson said. He knows the first, middle and last name of every student he has. 

“He’s like a magnet, everybody comes to him,” Berntson said. “And it's because he sees no color, no gender, no barriers, nothing. He just sees the good in every student and he wants to let them be a part of this big thing and express themselves in their own way.” 

Honored and humbled was how Holcomb described hearing such pronouncements about him. He doesn’t know what he does that’s “special” or “magnetic.”

“I'm just really glad that kids and parents alike have a safe space that they can go to and be a freak,” he said. “Parents are all jiving backstage with the kids, dancing every time. I love that. I love that they're not afraid to release their inner child because just as kids go through horrible times so do parents.” 

After their second matinee performance, Holcomb had a parent hug him, soaking his shoulder in tears. The parent thanked him for the smiles on the kids’ faces, it reminded them of the beauty in the world.

“It was just what she needed and that was that was everything,” he said. “That was amazing. So I made sure that the kids knew that too and how much they're impacting lives.”  

That irrepressible appreciation for Holcomb culminated right before the final performance when parents donated enough money to buy him a trip to Disneyland. 

Even though Holcomb can sing every Disney song by heart and tell you when the song came out and who originally sang it, he’s never been to any Disney theme park. 

“I grew up dirt poor in the middle of Kansas. We were as far away as possible from both parks,” he said.

“I’m still kind of in shock,” he said of the gift, which he planned to cash in over spring break. “I have the basket right beside me and I'm still staring at it waiting for it to sink in. Until then I'm just going to stare at it a bit more because it makes me really happy and I want to hold on to that.” 

Beyond the show

While middle school can be an awkward time for kids, Berntson said an experience producing a show can make a significant difference. It bridges gaps between social groups, breaking down barriers building momentum that lasts until the end of the year, she said. 

“I like seeing the kids get out there, out of their element and trying something new because theater’s not for everybody. But they can feel like they're a part of something really big at school,” Berntson said. “And the camaraderie and unity that all those months of working together builds lasts until the end of the school year, it's just amazing.” 

Holcomb said these students are just as much his future as he is theirs. 

“If they can take what they learned from this experience and apply it to becoming the best person that they can be and ensuring my future then that's,” he said before pausing, “that's everything.”  

Zoey said everyone should find a happy thing that uplifts them. “This was that thing for a lot of people at our school,” she said. “This was something that people looked forward to. That if they were having a bad day, or having a rough time, they came to the play and made it all 10 times better.” 

Behind the scenes

Holcomb was quick to point out the blood, sweat and tears put in by countless parent volunteers whether making costumes, cleaning the auditorium or donating money to the silent auction. He added his appreciation for the support of the faculty and school staff who came to the show, stayed late and encouraged the kids throughout the rehearsal process. 

There was also his board of directors (parents and staff) tasked with hair, makeup, cast party and finding meals for kids through final dress rehearsals among other things. 

“The amount of generosity that is given just baffles me and blows me away and I can't think about it for any longer than 15 seconds or I start crying about it,” Holcomb said. 

Berntson said other schools may put on bigger productions, but she is consistently amazed at the parents who help, like a dad using his construction background to help make the boat. 

“I've been lots of schools,” she said, “and I haven't seen anything like this.”