When the curtain falls on Saturday's performance of "My Fair Lady" in Kenai, an era will end at North Star Elementary School in Nikiski. This time around, the musical is filled with bittersweet significance for all involved.
The production is a memorial to a young talent tragically lost and to Pam and Rick Gennari, who are leaving the area after inspiring students for a decade with the magic of theater.
Daniel Downie originally was cast as one of two young actors to play Professor Henry Higgins, the male lead. The 11-year-old perished, along with his father and brother, when their house trailer burned March 30.
"The loss of this beautiful young man has affected these students greatly, and this musical has a double meaning for them," Pam said.
Make that a triple meaning.
The Gennaris have cultivated the young talents of the central peninsula with a series of ambitious children's musicals. "My Fair Lady" is their last show.
The couple, who have taught fifth and sixth grade, are leaving the state for health reasons. Pam had to retire in December due to a rare nerve disease. She will seek long-term medical treatment in California, and Rick will teach in a school there.
The Gennaris' departure will mean the end of North Star's large public performances, said Princi-pal Sue Liebner.
"The plays will no longer exist," she said. "They were the backbone of the program."
No one is ready to step into their shoes, and, because of enrollment and funding declines, Rick's position will not be filled, she said.
The couple is leaving a legacy at North Star that will endure, Liebner said.
The Gennaris made public speaking part of daily life at the school and championed "readers' theater," a way of dramatizing literature or texts from any subject to help children enjoy and absorb information.
"It gets into the brain. Kids love it," Liebner said.
The Gennaris' contributions also have been felt at Nikiski Middle-Senior High School.
Joe Rizzo, who leads the high school's drama department, said many students sign up for middle school forensics and his classes because they caught the theater bug at North Star. They are enthusiastic and understand drama basics.
"It has had a huge influence on what Nikiski High can do," Rizzo said. "I know the drama, debate and forensics program wouldn't be where it is without the Gennaris' program."
Departing has prompted the Gennaris to reflect on the role of theater in schools.
They have spoken out about how drama and other arts preserve culture, transform students' lives and enrich the curriculum. Pam compared students' blossoming on stage with Eliza Doolittle's transformation from cockney flower girl to high society princess in the classic Broadway show.
The Gennaris and their students over the years have produced "Oliver," "The Sound of Music," "The Wizard of Oz," "Newsies," "Annie" and "Hello Dolly."
The musicals have been more than after-school plays. Each year, the classes studied the time period, the characters, and how they related to life today. Seventh- and eighth-graders involved in previous years have returned as alumni to help out.
"My Fair Lady" will have two public performances tonight and Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Kenai Central High School Auditorium. Tickets are $5 for adults and $2 for students and younger children.
Alexa McClure and Jessica Copple share the starring role of Eliza Doolittle; Josh Ball plays Henry Higgins. The supporting cast is filled by students from the classes of Rick Gennari and Teri Lynn Hoffman.
The musical is dedicated to the memory of Daniel Downie.
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