SPRINGFIELD -- When Joe Simmons took over the Springfield High School theatre department in 2006, it wasn’t even a department.
Back then, it was just another fundraising activity put on by the Beta Club, which needed only a small stage to hold its performances.
Oh, how times have changed.
With Simmons running the show, the SHS theatre department is now a fully-accredited elective with a growing reputation around town for its entertaining, large-scale spring productions.
For one week every year, Simmons and his students transform the school’s gym from an athletic arena into a labyrinth of Disney tales come to life, replete with huge sets, elaborate costumes, dazzling special effects, and stunning performances from its all-student cast.
For many in the Springfield community, nothing tops play week.
“If we don’t do something big, why would people come?” Simmons asked rhetorically. “It would be just a small play in the middle of nowhere. If we didn’t do it the way we did, we wouldn’t be able to do it.”
The Springfield High theatre department wrapped up another successful spring production this weekend, concluding its 15-show run of “Beauty and the Beast” with a dinner theatre encore Saturday night.
For six days, audiences were treated to the classic tale of the Beast, once a prince before his cruel heart led to a gruesome transformation, and Belle, the heroine who softens his spirit and helps him regain his human form.
It’s a tale everyone knows, but one that Simmons’ students anxiously waited an entire year to perform.
“Last year, we knew almost before we started doing ‘Wizard of Oz’ that we were doing ‘Beauty and the Beast’ this year,” said Hamilton Haverkamp, who played the Beast. “We started singing songs and talking about how great that one would be and forgot we had a whole year before we’d do it.”
The spring production is one of two the SHS theatre department does each year, along with the travelling play in the fall. Last fall, a cast of 12 students performed “Gift of the Magi” at 13 different schools, including one as far away as Mississippi.
“We just hopped in two vehicles and went everywhere with it,” Simmons said.
They capped off “Gift of the Magi” with a finale performance at the “Night of Angels” event sponsored by In the Wind Ministries and Rev. Terry Lobell.
But after that run, preparation for the next show — the big one — immediately began, and it was quite the undertaking.
Since taking over the theatre department, Simmons and his students have brought to stage many of the most iconic Walt Disney stories, such as “Aladdin,” “The Emperor’s New Groove,” “The Lion King,” and “The Jungle Book.”
But ask Simmons and his students, and they’ll say nothing compares to the production they put on last week.
The set for “Beauty and the Beast” took months to build by hand, with Simmons and sophomore Mason Sibley (who also portrayed the smooth-talking Lumiere) leading the design.
The main stage covered more than 750 square feet, while another stage — what students call “the finger” — jutted out more than 20 feet from the main stage. At the end of the finger was a spinning platform used for several scenes, including the climactic dance scene between the titular characters.
Hand-painted, dark brick walls that reached more than 20 feet high were built on stage, along with a chandelier that lowered for the play’s “Be Our Guest” scene. Stretched across the stage in the back was a screen that at times displayed a dark and foreboding forest, an extravagant palace interior, a lively village, an old French bar and other backdrops.
A secret hatch was built in the stage for the Beast/Prince transformation scenes, which were clouded in a stream of fog and flashing lights. Those intel lights also flickered to life for both forest scenes, adding more horror as the student-played wolves made their way through the crowd.
The entire stage — which reached halfcourt of the gym — was covered with a tile-looking flooring.
“This is Mr. Simmons’ brainchild,” said Austin Paradelas, a 2015 SHS graduate who returned to direct this year’s spring play. “Nobody does it like we do, and it’s because of him. Nobody puts two-story buildings on stage, and no one has the effects that we have.
“People just don’t do what we do, and Mr. Joe is an absolute genius when it comes to this stuff, all the engineering, architecture, and design.”
Simmons’ cast of 22 students made sure they lived up to the detailed set (which Simmons said costs anywhere from $8,000-10,000), both on and off stage. Students not only acted in the play, they also acted as a makeshift backstage crew, moving props on and off stage every time the lights went out between scenes.
No one — not the main characters or the extras — is exempt.
“I can tell you from experience that everyone in the cast will be moving a prop,” said Ronnie Wells, the cast’s only senior. “We all do it because no one’s too good for any job. We all work together to make sure the production goes on. We’re a team.”
The SHS theatre department had its final curtain call Saturday, treating a sold-out crowd to dinner and a show. After the last bow, Simmons played a tribute video for his seniors that also revealed the department’s next spring production — “Cinderella.”
Students are already looking forward to next year.
“We’re just gonna keep trying to top what we did the last year and make it better,” said sophomore Brielle Lee, who played the role of Belle. “Whatever we do next, we want to make it better than the last.”