Big Show is end of an era for vocal teacher

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal arts writer

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Choir director Sarah Kaufman leads fourth and fifth grade members of the Rising Star singers at Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts in a rehearsal of a musical number in preparation for the school's annual Big Show.. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal)

Sarah Kaufman and her 183 Miller South singers will take a big walk down memory lane this weekend with Back To OUR Future!, the school’s Big Show vocal extravaganza at the Akron Civic Theatre.

The program, which marks Kaufman’s final Big Show before she retires, will highlight some of the program’s greatest hits since the Big Show began in 2000. The performing arts school had spring concerts from 1993 to 1999, but in 2000 it was transformed into the Big Show, complete with choreography, costume changes and sets.

“We wanted to give the kids a feel for being in a major production,” said Kaufman, who with former librarian Sandy Carpenter produces every detail of the annual show.

The Big Show, which began in the school theater, eventually outgrew that venue. Five years ago, vocal booster club president and parent Chad Crawford led the charge to transfer the show to the Civic Theatre.

“We gotta think big,” he said at the time.

Renting the Civic, which is a union house, is expensive, so the vocal program has held fundraisers to cover expenses, including a raffle that made $16,000 in its first year. The Big Show is being held for the fourth year at the Civic, with more than 3,000 total attendees expected at performances Friday and Saturday night.

The massive production wouldn’t happen without the parents, who help with dress rehearsals, man the dressing rooms, wrangle kids and bring cases of water.

Brian Shellito, parent of eighth-grader Georgia and a Beacon Journal designer, created the show’s poster, which features the DeLorean from the movie Back to the Future. Other parents have choreographed numbers — Kirsten Fitzgerald (mother of Kassidy) did the parent number Hard Knock Life and Carey Sommer (mother of Jon and Grace) created the dance for the fourth-graders’ You Got a Friend in Me.

Parents also became involved with costuming, with Becky Kear (mother of Hannah) creating a cheetah puppet for the seventh- and eighth-grade number Circle of Life and Rosanna Koehler (mother of Jacob) coming up with a mummy costume for Walk Like an Egyptian.

“We’ve got a great group of boosters, and they really come out,” Kaufman said.

This weekend’s program includes 33 songs, featuring duets or solos by Jon and Grace Sommer, Sabrina Reed and Vy Truong, Abbey Lyman and Jasmine Moore. Eight different backdrops will range from a train station for Chattanooga Choo Choo to a grand hall for Be Our Guest.

In this huge joint effort, Miller South alumna Mackenzi Bolyard-Pizana, a Firestone High School senior, has choreographed 15 numbers, often re-creating the original choreography from shows past. Current seventh-grader Kiarra Anderson choreographed the seventh-graders’ In the Navy/YMCA and seventh-grader Molly Chelovitz re-created the basketball-themed Sweet Georgia Brown. That number was originally choreographed in 2010 by fourth-grade teacher Amy Heffernan, who this year choreographed Walk Like an Egyptian, a show choir number reprised from 2009.

Carpenter, who was librarian at the school for 19 years until retiring last year, is in charge of the show’s many costumes, at least five for each student.

At a recent rehearsal, the fourth-grade Rising Stars choir members wore adorable butterfly, spider and ladybug costumes and headpieces as they practiced Ugly Bug Ball, crooning, “I got nobody to hug. I’m such an ugly bug” as they did a softshoe dance.

The fifth-grade Rising Stars popped their cheeks in perfect unison and sang three-part harmony while holding sweets props in Lollipop. Kaufman did what she always does, standing as she accompanied the kids on piano and cued them on lyrics.

Kaufman, who created the school’s vocal program when Miller South opened 20 years ago, is an expert multitasker who kept playing and rehearsing even while answering questions from an adult.

Leaving the program that she has built, she is inordinately proud of her choir students in fourth through eighth grade as well as the show choir, which performs 30 to 40 shows annually.

Among Kaufman’s biggest fans are her mother, Viola Werner, 93, and father, Byron Werner, 95, who will be in the Civic Theatre audience this weekend, as they have for every one of Kaufman’s public Miller South concerts in the last 20 years. Kaufman’s husband, Art, brought his former college roommate Don Lippe to the show last year, and he liked it so much, he’ll return from Seguin, Texas, to see this year’s production.

As usual, Kaufman will be at the piano for this weekend’s Big Show, and she’ll also play the Mighty Wurlitzer organ before each show and during intermission.

So what are Kaufman’s plans for retirement? She will keep playing the organ at the Civic and continue as choir director at St. John/St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church downtown. She and her husband will learn to play the banjo together and Kaufman also plans to get back to her woodworking shop.

Big Show performances will be at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets cost $10 for adults and $5 for senior citizens and children, available at the Akron Civic Theatre box office. Call 330-253-2488 or see The shows have open seating.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or at

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