SOUTHWEST HARBOR — What is it with kids these days? At 6:30 p.m. last Friday evening, when one might expect the youngsters of Mount Desert Island to be at home safely glued to some screen or other, munching on snacks, about 30 of them were discovered at Harbor House here, singing, dancing and acting their hearts out at the behest of a bearded and burly leader. Not only that, but many of them were joined by parents and even, wait for it, grandparents.
No cause for panic, however; it is simply the annual Acadia Community Theater spring musical in rehearsal. The leader in question is Mark Puglisi, a founding member of ACT who has been directing shows for them on and off for a couple of decades.
Acting as music director for this show is Catie Forthofer, who began her stage career in the title role of the Acadia Community Theater production of “Annie” in 2007 and went on to distinguish herself in many school show choir and musical productions.
Puglisi directed that production of “Annie.” He said it’s a special thrill for him to have Forthofer return to ACT as a colleague. Her energetic directing has happily produced a chorus that sings not only loudly but tunefully.
The show they are singing this year is “Seussical,” which the community theater performed about a dozen years ago.
“There was some discussion about doing a repeat,” said Puglisi, “But I knew it filled all the check marks for an ACT show and that we had the voices needed for a show that has so many big solos.”
Those check marks include the need for a large cast of all ages — this cast is some 50 kids, adults and elders — and for it to be light, fun, family-friendly fare.
Judging from this rehearsal, “Seussical” is all of that and then some.
Just the opening number, “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think,” with a band of merry little Whos led by a mischievous Cat in a Hat, is guaranteed to put a grin on the face of even the most jaded theatergoer.
Puglisi clearly has a way to draw out both enthusiasm and projection from his youngest actors. One little Who threw herself so convincingly into a beseeching mode, as she begged Horton the Elephant to save her tiny town, she might have been starring in “Agnes of God.”
But really, even on a Friday evening after a long day and long week of school, work and life, this whole cast — kids and grownups — seems to have energy and enthusiasm to spare.
And Puglisi wasn’t kidding about having all the soloists he needs to make this show not only work but shine. Some, like Danielle Jones-Shepard, Thomas Van Gorder, Josh Howie and Jeff Servates, are ACT veterans. Others, like Conners Emerson student Finn Hansbury, who plays the Who hero Jojo, are taking their first star turn on this stage.
Of course, having top-notch performers can be a drawback for a director in that everyone has ideas about how to do this or that, and many of them might be very good, while some may not be. Puglisi has enough years in the director’s chair to manage what might be an overload of input for a less seasoned director.
He said he followed his older brother into theater in middle school in his native New Jersey and has, with a few gaps for other priorities, been involved in theater one way or another ever since.
His induction into directing, however, was a reluctant one.
“I was a newbie teacher at Mount Desert Elementary when Maryanne Van Dorn was putting on a student and teacher production of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” Puglisi said. “She had heard I had done some theater and asked if I’d direct. ‘Ooh, no’ I told her. I just didn’t think I had the time or the confidence to take that on.
“But she pulled a smart move on me,” he said. “They started rehearsing in my classroom after school, where I’d still be working on the next day’s lesson. So, of course, I’d see something that could maybe be improved, and I’d make a suggestion, and before I knew what was happening, I was directing the thing!”
After a few years, that little student teacher show started recruiting community members for its productions and eventually became Acadia Community Theater.
ACT has stayed true to its roots and its original mission to provide the children of the Mount Desert Island community at large with a creative afterschool activity. It is now involved in three productions a year, including a popular Shakespeare by the Sea outdoor performance in collaboration with Barn Arts Collective.
“Anyone who wants to participate is welcome,” said Puglisi. “The only thing we cut for is nonattendance.”
While this can limit which shows they can choose and be stressful for a director, who has to wrangle the large casts, the benefits, he said, far outweigh those drawbacks.
“Sometimes we’ve had whole families, mom, dad and the kids, in one of our shows,” Puglisi said, “I mean, how great is that?”
He also believes ACT provides some useful training both on stage and behind the scenes for youngsters who will go on to the excellent high school drama program.
“Casey [Rush, the head of MDIHS’s award-winning theater department] has been so supportive of ACT in finding rehearsal and performance times at the high school during their very busy spring schedule,” Puglisi said. “He’s a good guy, but I suspect it’s partially because he knows he’s going to be getting kids that can hit the ground running when he gets them.”
Forthofer and Griffin Graves, another high school standout who played ACTs first Jojo, are cases in point.
Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor has been home to ACT’s Christmastime productions. Bar Harbor’s vintage, art deco Criterion Theatre has become a relatively new friend to the company, and “Seussical” will be performed there for its second weekend. Puglisi said he hopes this relationship will expand over time.
Those who want to answer the question “What are the kids up to these days?” for themselves can do so when “Seussical” is performed on the Higgins-Demas stage at Mount Desert Island High School on Friday, March 30, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, March 31, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Then it skips a weekend and moves to The Criterion for performances on Friday, April 13, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, April 14, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.