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Zion Opera Workshop celebrates 50 years with ‘Mary Poppins’

The late Paul Smith of Lehighton lived for music. He was music director at Lehighton Area High School, served as the music director of Zion United Church of Christ in Lehighton for 44 years and was director of the Lehighton Band from 1965 until his untimely death in March 2016.

His Lehighton Band concerts played everything from marches to classical music to show tunes.

In 1970, he opted for a new venture: a musical at his church. He formed the Zion Opera Workshop which staged the performance “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”

It was such a success that musicals became an annual performance for ZOW. Although the first one was staged for church members, future ones were nondenominations and included performers of all ages from young children to adult.

The shows moved to multi-night performances at the former Derr Hall section of the church, which has a larger seating capacity. In 2008, when Smith retired, Derr Hall was renamed Smith Auditorium in honor of him and his wife Linnea.

And the show go on

Every year since 1970, the Zion Opera Workshop has put on a musical at the beginning of March. That continued even after Smith retired.

His son-in-law, Brad Cressley, took the reins.

Shows in the past have included such classics as “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “My Fair Lady” and “South Pacific,” to name a few. Most years, the shows were sold out.

This year, ZOW presents the Walt Disney classic “Mary Poppins,” which has such memorable tunes as “Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious,” “Chim Chim-iney” and “Spoonful of Sugar.”

“Mary Poppins” will be presented March 5, 6 and 7 at 7:30 p.m. with a special matinee on March 7. Cressley said the matinee has already sold out.

Tickets are still available for the other performances and can be obtained at Carbon County Music & More in Lehighton, from any ZOW member or by calling Cressley at 610-392-1810.

Cressley stressed that none of the performers are paid. They are all local residents who merely enjoy performing. Some have been in 20 to 30 of the shows.

One member of ZOW, Beth Cressley, has been part of all 50 shows. She’s the daughter of Smith and the wife of Brad.

An orchestra performs at each event. Cressley said members of the orchestra receive a travel stipend.

This is the first year “Mary Poppins” is being presented by ZOW.

Having the starring roles of Mary Poppins is Laura Reichard, who is the granddaughter of Paul and Linnea Smith and the daughter of Cressley. This is her second starring role, although she had supporting roles in well over a dozen previous performances. She played the role of “Millie” in the 2016 production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

Zachary Sessock, who is in his fourth ZOW performance, plays Bert, a role made famous by Dick Van Dyke.

The play centers on the Banks family. Playing the father George is Brandon Cressley, while the mother Winifred is played by Amy Shelly.

The roles of the Banks children are handled by youngsters Aiden Wowk and Mylee Rose Hauser.

There are well over two dozen performers in “Mary Poppins.”

A labor of love

There’s more to the Zion Opera Workshop musicals than performers singing, dancing and acting on stage.

Six months before the show the decision is made as to which musical will be staged in Smith Auditorium.

Tryouts for the various roles are held. Members make the props, which, Cressley said, sometimes means reconfiguring props from prior shows. For example, one year a limousine was constructed for a play. This year, the flat art of the limo was repurposed into a nursery for the “Mary Poppins” set. The other side of the nursery prop has the rooftops of London, Cressley said.

In charge of the stage crew are Duane and Pati Reichard, who Cressley said has been involved with ZOW for many years. “They started on Jan. 2 to make the set,” Cressley said. “We’re still not done because of all the logistics that have to happen here and there.”

Cressley said that when Smith staged his second production, “Oklahoma,” the set was made with cardboard. Today wood is mainly used.

Nancy Keiser said the work on sewing the costumes began months ago.

Cressley said Smith was a genius with the music aspects of the productions but wasn’t as skilled with choreography. Today the choreography is coordinated by Deb Strausberger, owner of the TNT Dance Studio in Lehighton.

This is Strausberger’s ninth year with ZOW. She got involved when Cressley’s daughter, Laura, became her dance student.

Cressley said the Smiths initially decided to put on a musical because at the time, musicals were not being presented at Lehighton Area High School.

Another talented individual joining the ZOW staff is Jessica Schafer, who is the student play director at Lehighton high.

Cressley and Schafer were asked why Zion Opera Workshop productions were never moved to a larger venue. Schafer answered, saying of Smith Auditorium, “It’s quaint but it’s special.”

This is Schafer’s 16th year with ZOW. Included in this year’s presentation is her pet toy poodle, Lou Lou.

Besides being stage director, she is also in the ensemble portion of the show.

ZOW keeps on expanding

While Zion Opera Workshop continues to perform just one show per year, members have done other activities including concerts.

In addition, a new segment to ZOW has formed.

Brad Cressley’s daughter, Laura, has formed a Zion Opera Workshop Junior.

ZOW Junior is preparing for its fifth annual production, “Frozen Junior,” at a date to be announced.

Brad said the junior group will be doing Broadway-type shows “but they are watered down a little.” He said some of the lines or some of the songs might be shorter.

Laura Reichard portrays Mary Poppins and Zachary Sessock is Bert in the Zion Opera Workshop production of “Mary Poppins.” This is the 50th annual production of the local theater.
Aidan Wouk is Michael Banks and Mylee Rose Hauser is Jane Banks in scene from the musical “Mary Poppins,” being presented by Zion Opera Workshop in Lehighton.
A scene from “Mary Poppins,” presented March 5, 6 and 7 by Zion Opera Workshop in Lehighton.
Laura Reichard, playing the role of Mary Poppins, sings the song “Practically Perfect” to Aiden Wouk (Michael Banks) and Mylee Rose Hauser (Jane Banks) in the musical comedy “Mary Poppins.”
Dance scene from “Mary Poppins,” being presented by Zion Opera Workshop in Lehighton. RON GOWER/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS