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Omaha teens will take to the stage for Leahy Mall reopening thanks to UNO program

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The Performance Pavilion in Omaha’s Gene Leahy Mall will host a number of high-caliber performers, including an Emmy winner and a country music star, to kick off the park’s opening weekend. But those national acts won’t be the first ones to grace the new stage.

That honor belongs to a group of Nebraska high school students and recent graduates.

As the final pieces of the mall’s three-year overhaul wrapped up around them, a cast and crew of teens took to the pavilion’s stage Tuesday night for a rehearsal of “Fame the Musical.”

The rehearsal was one of the group’s final practices before its planned show this weekend as part of the park’s reopening ceremonies.

In all, 46 students from 21 Omaha-area schools will produce the show through the UNO Summer Musical Theatre Academy. Multiple UNO departments joined forces with Omaha Public Schools and Omaha South High School to launch the tuition-free program on June 6.

Sunday’s free performance will begin at 8:30 p.m. at the Performance Pavilion.

The theater program has brought together students of varying ages and experience from across the Omaha metro area, and beyond, for the show.

“I probably wouldn’t have gotten to do theater with any of these people without (this program). We go to different schools. Some of us have graduated, so that’s a really unique opportunity that I’m grateful to have,” said Alex Zaleski, a recent Skutt Catholic High School graduate who will portray Miss Sherman in the musical.

The experience also puts students in contact with professionals in the field, said Andrew Milburn, a recent Chadron High School graduate.

Those professionals include Seattle-based director Vincent J. Orduna, who staged the production with musical direction by Tyler Gruttemeyer, director of vocal music at Omaha South High School, and choreography by Domanic Brown. The production team includes designers with UNO Theatre and the Blue Barn Theatre.

“The directors really give you a taste of industry standards,” Milburn said.

Milburn has traveled roughly seven hours from his hometown to be a part of the program.

With guidance, the students have been involved in every part of the production, including the performance, lighting, sound, hair and makeup, wardrobe and stage management.

“The students are acting pretty much as professionals themselves,” said Hal France, a nationally recognized conductor and UNO faculty member serving as director of the summer program. “It’s really impressive to watch.”

A number of students bring their own years of experience to the show.

Olivia Bryant, a junior at Omaha South High School, entered theater at a young age. On Sunday, she’ll perform as Carmen Diaz.

After more than two years of a high school theater career interrupted by the COVID pandemic, Bryant said she’s excited to perform this weekend.

“It’s all coming together super fast, but the speed did give me the ability to be on top of things a bit more,” Bryant said. “We’re ready.”

Omari Montes, an incoming freshman at Omaha South High School, shares Bryant’s excitement.

Montes’ performance in the show’s ensemble will be his first dive into theater.

“I think it’s going to be a huge experience for everyone in the show and a big crowd of people that are going to get to see us and see what we can do,” Montes said.

jwade@owh.com, 402-444-1067

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Jessica Wade covers breaking news, crime and the Omaha zoo. Follow her on Twitter @Jess_Wade_OWH. Phone: 402-444-1067

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