Center Players still giving 'have-to-see-it' performances


Peter Thomson


By Peter Thomson

Saturday, May 19, 2018

When Holly Wright’s contributions to Arts of the Albemarle’s The Center Players were memorialized with the placement of a star in the sidewalk in front of AoA’s The Center, it was the end of an era for children’s theater in Elizabeth City.

At the ceremony, Holly was surrounded by the young stars of The Center Players, the group she founded and for whom she was the guiding force: the young people who Elizabeth City had grown to love. Lauren, and Corey, Trevor, William, Naomi, Alana, Mac and the rest took turns being photographed with Holly and the engraved star. For them, and for us, it was a celebration of a journey they had taken together.

The Center Players, under the guidance of Holly, Billy Caudle and several guest directors, had started with seven children unpracticed in theater arts and seven years later sported 54 accomplished young performers. They had won awards in Atlanta, had a police escort back to town, reached across the ocean to work with an Australian group, and become a nationally recognized young people’s company. To outside professionals, being from Elizabeth City’s The Center Players meant something: graduates went on to the North Carolina School of the Arts; to Boston College; to the New York School of Dance; to Disney. They were well trained, disciplined and accomplished. Some have debuted professionally and are already going on to bigger things. It all happened right here, in our little town. Wow!

While Holly is a singular and irreplaceable talent, the program she created stayed intact and a consummate professional was hired to carry it forward. Jo Ellen Aspinwall came to town with a background in theater management and direction. She holds a master’s degree in fine arts in directing from the University of Southern Mississippi and has a ton of experience in Charleston, South Carolina: an ideal resume for the new director of AoA’s School of the Arts. But since Holly and the performers who had made The Center Players’ productions a must-see had moved on, theatergoers in Elizabeth City weren’t sure if the group of young performers was going to be any darn good. Were The Center Players going to be another “after-school showcase” kind of thing or a “have-to-see-it” company?

Their latest show, “Once Upon a Mattress,” dispelled all doubts. To use baseball parlance, The Center Players are not rebuilding, they have simply reloaded. This version of The Center Players is mostly young and still growing in confidence and skill, but their performance of “Once Upon a Mattress” was beautifully put together and a grand piece of entertainment. Under the direction of Jo Ellen, musical directors Kelly Balmaceda and Sandra Kreuger, and choreographer Quinn Wolf, there was not a missed cue or misstep. Fourteen-year-old Abby Bright was winsome, gorgeous and funny. Voices were clear, on key and lovely.

It was a great show… that too few people saw. The tradition here has always been to “wait for the buzz.” But in this instance, it was a mistake: by the time folks had heard how good it was, it was gone.

“Once Upon a Mattress” was The Center Players’ big show for the spring. It gave the young performers a chance to work together on a major project, learn how to blend voices and finish up stage movements — all of which they did superbly. Jo Ellen gave each song its own moment in the limelight and each of the leads a defined and winning character, while the cast choreography and harmonies were stunning. So the senior class has graduated: here come the juniors! At the end of the show the audience rose as one in a standing ovation, and the person clapping the loudest was Holly Wright.

Peter Thomson is a resident of Elizabeth City.