A spooktacular spectacle: Local Zoom musical “Autumn and the Monsters” wows crowds

Used+with+authorization+from+John+Lucewich%0A+Top+row%2C+L-R%3A+Maddie+Thompson%2C+Sofia+Serrano%2C+Emily+Sproule.+Second+row%2C+L-R%3A+Grace+Morrison%2C+Camryn+Carter%2C+John+Cogan.+Third+row%2C+L-R%3A+Blake+Infuso%2C+Leslie+Valencia%2C+Lilly+Dawson.+Fourth+row%2C+L-R%3A+Katie+Cochran%2C+Sarah+Lopez%2C+James+Klein%0A

Used with authorization from John Lucewich Top row, L-R: Maddie Thompson, Sofia Serrano, Emily Sproule. Second row, L-R: Grace Morrison, Camryn Carter, John Cogan. Third row, L-R: Blake Infuso, Leslie Valencia, Lilly Dawson. Fourth row, L-R: Katie Cochran, Sarah Lopez, James Klein

Emily Yoon, A&E Editor

   Few experiences are as personal as attending a show at the theatre. Audiences sit in the dark for hours, watching actors onstage craft an entire world through dialogue, song and movement. Entrancing sets and precise mood lighting create immersive escapes for both actor and audience.

  Theatre is, no doubt, one of the world’s most enduring forms of entertainment and human connection. However, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, nearly all in-person interaction has been put on hold.

    Art, luckily, always finds a way to prevail—and Santa Clarita’s own Canyon Theatre Guild is bringing the magic of the stage to Zoom. 

   In addition to its online setting, “Autumn and the Monsters” is unorthodox for yet another reason: it is a completely original show. Though youth theatre programs typically produce iterations of family-friendly classic shows such as “Annie” or “Peter Pan,” this show is totally new: workshopped and performed for the first time by the talent-studded cast of 12. 

   “Autumn and the Monsters” centers, as the title suggests, around a tween girl named Autumn as she introduces her friend Jenna to a lovable (and sometimes spooky) crew of monsters via Zoom video chat. 

   The entire show is the brainchild of actor-writer-director extraordinaires John Lucewich and Chelsea Henderson-Jones. Lucewich, who operates the Canyon Theatre Guild’s box office, has written nine original youth shows, including “Autumn and the Monsters,” that all take place in a fictional world named the “Scypaxian” universe.

   Lucewich’s shows have a reputation for being zany, often merging science fiction, Santa Clarita folklore and fantasy elements to create stories rich with eccentric characters and music. For his SCV-based shows, Lucewich often researches local urban legends and paranormal activity to give his audiences a taste of supernatural happenings in “Awesometown.” 

   Although “Autumn and the Monsters” does not take much inspiration from Santa Clarita itself, “audiences here can look forward to the original story and the hometown and fall vibes,” shared cast member Maddie Thompson. 

   The cast of “Autumn and the Monsters” looks to Lucewich and Henderson-Jones for guidance. “So much of my love goes out to John and Chelsea,” said cast member Lilly Dawson. “It’s really helpful to have the writers in the room. You get to ask them, ‘what does this mean?’ It’s a different experience working with John and Chelsea, especially on their Scypaxian shows, especially because it’s an original universe. You’re helping build it with them.”

   Though traditionally Lucewich’s original musicals contain popular songs from various artists, “Autumn and the Monsters,” because it is online, presents a copyright issue. Instead of well-known tunes, the directors have opted to include two original songs, written by John Lucewich and taught by vocal/assistant director Katrina Negrete. 

   Negrete weighed in on this aspect of Zoom rehearsal. “Vocal directing on Zoom was definitely a challenge and was at times more difficult than directing in person,” she shared. “Audio on Zoom isn’t the most reliable, but I am glad to have the opportunity to vocal direct whether or not Zoom plays a part in that.” 

    Dawson also spoke about learning songs via Zoom. “Learning it is not difficult at all,” she explained. “A lot of the problem lies in the unreliability of Zoom and performing it.”

   Thompson chimed in: “It’s tough, but it’s not terrible.”

    Dawson, a thirteen-year-old homeschooler, originates the role of optimistic, bubbly protagonist Autumn Annelly. 

   “She sees the light in the most awful situation you could possibly imagine,”  Dawson divulged in an interview. 

   Dawson is no stranger to theatre: she’s been acting since she was young. However, “Autumn and the Monsters” challenged her in new ways. “One thing that’s been a struggle for me: Me and Maddie have both been acting since we were young and we’ve been told to go with instinct, and I have to do the opposite for Autumn,” she said. “In situations where I would want to cry or scream, Autumn is calm.” 

   Dawson plays opposite Thompson, a Valencia senior. Thompson was also seen as protagonist Athena Jones in “Strangely Distant in Awesometown,” another of Lucewich’s online shows. In “Autumn and the Monsters,” she portrays the grisly, Southern belle-gone-bad antagonist, Vespera Cunningham. 

   “She’s just a very complex character. The writing definitely just is a lot to take in,” admitted Thompson. “In any other context she’d be the hero.” 

   The show itself took place on October 15 and October 16 on Zoom. As spooky music played, audiences patiently awaited the start of the show. Soon, directors Lucewich and Henderson-Jones, along with assistant director Negrete, appeared onscreen in costumes, each representing a different season. 

   Lucewich introduced the show and gave the audience a set of Zoom guidelines. Audience members were told to turn on gallery mode, disable non-video participants, and mute themselves.  

   Autumnus, a genteel, bright-eyed seasonal spirit played by fourteen-year-old Sarah Lopez, kicked off the show with a cheery autumnal ballad. Acting as a narrator, she introduced Autumn and her friend Jenna, who were about to meet Autumn’s monster friends via Zoom. 

   The spunky cast of characters did not disappoint. Each monster had a unique personality and “look:” the gentlemanly, fox-like creature Trillian, his carefree mouse-catching sister, West, fearless leader Bell, tech-savvy Echo and more. Autumn introduced each monster to Jenna via song. 

   However, it wasn’t long before Vespera, holding a grudge against all monsters, unexpectedly joined the Zoom meeting and put a spell on all the monsters. In an epic struggle between good and evil, Autumn discovered that she herself possessed supernatural powers. 

   One unique facet of the show was the choose-your-own adventure plot point near the end of the show. When Autumn offered herself as a human sacrifice to stop Vespera’s spell from killing the monsters, the audience was given the ability to choose her fate.

   Surprisingly, the October 16 audience overwhelmingly chose to let Autumn die, but changed their minds after seeing the anguish displayed by Autumnus and the other seasonal spirits. Autumn returned to Earth, Vespera apologized, and the entire cast rocked out to “Dead Man’s Party” by Oingo Boingo as the show drew to a close. 

  Overall, “Autumn and the Monsters” was an hour of pure entertainment from the comfort of home. Personally, I found it to be the perfect blend of an engaging storyline and family-friendly fun. I thoroughly enjoyed the attention to detail in every cast member’s set, background and makeup. “Autumn and the Monsters” was the perfect way to introduce some socially-distanced Halloween festivities. 

   Although “Autumn and the Monsters” is no longer playing, I encourage everyone to watch the Canyon Theatre Guild’s next original youth shows, “Firefly Kingdom” and “Super Happy Awesome News,” and support local theatres. More information is available at https://www.canyontheatre.org/workshops .

   The Paw Print gives “Autumn and the Monsters” a 5 out of 5 paws for introducing the audience to some supernatural fall fun!