It's a familiar story by now. A theater department shut down in the middle of preparing its spring production due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hermantown High School students were all set to perform "Radium Girls" last spring when the shutdown orders came.

It was heartbreaking for the cast, crew and directors. Then junior, now senior, Josie Harris remembers the feeling.

"It was just so disappointing and frustrating. We really, really, really did not want the same thing to happen again this fall," Harris said. "For a while, we thought we weren't going to get to do a show at all. But we figured if sports could do their thing, we should find a way to do ours."

Directors Ken Ahlberg and Theresa Taraldsen found themselves reminiscing over the past 20 years of musical productions they've directed at the high school.

Hermantown freshman Emily Mahnke rehearsing "I Know Things Now" from Into the Woods. (Photo submitted)
Hermantown freshman Emily Mahnke rehearsing "I Know Things Now" from Into the Woods. (Photo submitted)

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"We couldn't believe that we were already 20 years into this century. So an idea popped into our heads: What if we did one song from every musical we've done in those 20 years as a musical revue?" Ahlberg said. "That way students could perform solos, duos or trios, and we'd keep everyone safe while still having this show."

Tryouts were held virtually. Students picked a song of their choice and made a video of themselves singing it. In total, Ahlberg and Taraldsen have directed 23 shows since 2000 and selected the hit song from each show to showcase students in grades 7 to 12.

"And we found as we picked out and matched the songs to students, they were all pretty much songs about hope and about looking to the future," Ahlberg said.

Students came in after school for half-hour rehearsal slots to work on their individual pieces. The process ran fairly smoothly, though sometimes students would have to quarantine and connect with the directors via video chat. Taraldsen said the rehearsals helped her deal with stress through the fall semester.

"You just never know what each school day is going to bring. And we'd rush into rehearsals after school with bundles of stress," Taraldsen said. "But once they started singing and acting, it just lifted our spirits, and the whole day of stress melted away. I went home feeling so much better."

Ahlberg said he liked seeing the individual growth in each student throughout the process.

"You can see their confidence build up and their skills develop through each rehearsal," he said. "And then you give them a costume, and suddenly they stop being teenagers and start becoming their characters. You give a teen girl a pair of elbow-length gloves, and suddenly she's somebody else."

Each song has been filmed with students in full costume and a backdrop suited to the musical. The performances are now being edited together to make a cohesive show.

For Harris, the process has been different than what she's used to, but she has enjoyed it.

"We don't get to bond with the cast like we usually do. And it's different singing for a camera than performing for a live audience. But I'm thrilled to be able to do it," Harris said.

She's performing two numbers: "Ya Got Trouble" from "The Music Man" and "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" from "The Pirates of Penzance." She picked "Ya Got Trouble" as her audition piece, which was different than what Taraldsen and Ahlberg had planned for that musical, but stuck with it after seeing her audition.

"That's my skill, I can talk fast and rhythmically to music," Harris said.

Hermantown eighth-grader Braelynn Gunderson and her dog, Oakley, rehearse the song "Tomorrow" from the musical "Annie." (Submitted photo)
Hermantown eighth-grader Braelynn Gunderson and her dog, Oakley, rehearse the song "Tomorrow" from the musical "Annie." (Submitted photo)

Viewers will also recognize other well-know numbers such as "Tomorrow" from "Annie," "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" from "My Fair Lady" and "Impossible Dream" from "Man of La Mancha." Each number will be introduced by the performer with context for the musical, the year it was performed at Hermantown and who sang the number back in the day.

"We even include some information about what those former students are doing now," Ahlberg said. "And while reaching out to those students, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that many are now working in the arts. That's always fun to hear."

"The Last 20 Years — A Musical Revue" will be available for streaming online at 7 p.m. Dec. 4-7. Tickets for the concert are available at hhstheatre.ludus.com.