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Ferndale High’s next musical, ‘She Loves Me,’ is last one for director

By: Mike Koury | Woodward Talk | Published March 10, 2020

 George Van Der Vennet rehearses a scene as his character, Georg Nowack.

George Van Der Vennet rehearses a scene as his character, Georg Nowack.

Photo by Deb Jacques

 Melissa Smith-Maurer will be directing her final production for the Ferndale High School theater department with the students’ performance of “She Loves Me.” Smith-Maurer has worked in the district for  more than 15 years.

Melissa Smith-Maurer will be directing her final production for the Ferndale High School theater department with the students’ performance of “She Loves Me.” Smith-Maurer has worked in the district for more than 15 years.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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Editor’s note: All people interviewed for this story were interviewed before the production was postponed.

FERNDALE — The students of Ferndale High School hope to be putting on their annual spring musical in late April, a show that will be the last one directed by the school’s theater instructor.

Ferndale High School’s production of “She Loves Me” originally comprised five performances in March, before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made the decision late March 12 to close schools throughout the state until April 5 in an attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The high school now hopes to have one performance of the musical at 7 p.m. April 28.

The show tells the story of co-workers Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash, two people who don’t quite like each other but who have unknowingly been communicating anonymous pen pals.

“I just think audiences just really respond to that kind of idealized idea of what love should be or could be,” said theater director Melissa Smith-Maurer. “Then there’s the reality of what love truly is, and truly loving somebody, and I think people are always just really moved, and it makes people feel cheerful and happy at the end.”

The lead roles of the show belong to George Van Der Vennet and Jessica Decker, who will be playing Georg and Amalia, respectively.

Decker, 16, has been part of the school’s performances since her freshman year. Now a junior, the Oak Park teen said the first time she got onstage was a nerve-wracking experience, but now she feels excited more than anything to get onstage and act with everyone.

As she’s gotten into the role of Amalia, Decker has been able to find some common ground with the character.

“I like Amalia because I think she’s a lot like me,” she said. “She loves to read; I also love to read. She’s pretty well educated. She can be shy sometimes, but then other times, when she really gets going, she’s like a ball of fire almost. She has two very different sides to her.”

Van Der Vennet, 18, started out in the orchestra pit before getting onstage to act. The Ferndale senior said he’s pretty comfortable now being onstage, though he did experience a big jump in terms of his role compared to last year.

“At the beginning of this show, it was a huge change for me personally, because last year my character actually had no speaking lines and only sang in one song, and now this year, I have a lead role and there are way more lines and way more singing,” he said. “Definitely, at the beginning, I was extremely nervous, but I think over the months I’ve sort of grasped it, and I’m much more comfortable now than I was before.”

“She Loves Me” is a production that means quite a lot to Smith-Maurer, as it’s one of her favorite musicals and the one that brought her back to Michigan in the 1990s.

Smith-Maurer first directed the show in graduate school at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. The family of one of the leads would go on to ask her to put on the production at Grosse Pointe South. This career path would lead her to eventually become the theater director at Ferndale High School, a position she held from 1997 to 2000 and 2006 to the present day.

Smith-Maurer said she won’t be retiring after she leaves her post, as she’s only stepping away from this extracurricular component of her work and just looking to be involved in the district in a different way

“I’ve loved it,” she said of her time as director. “It’s been probably the best part of my job, but it’s time to transition my energies and talents elsewhere. … I’ll still be involved in the district, and I certainly will be pitching in where I can be of use with the theater program. I just won’t be helming the ship.”

Acting under Smith-Maurer helped Decker learn to trust herself more, especially during her first show in a lead role — “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

“I was a freshman and it was my first show ever and I was really terrified, and she was just really helpful and supportive the entire way, encouraging me, saying that I could do it, I could pull through this, and I did, and it was great and she’s been like that all the time,” she said.

Noting how much work she puts into these productions and the effort she puts forward, Van Der Vennet said Smith-Maurer was very inspiring to him and that it’s “monumental” how much she does to help the students succeed.

“When I think about our performances, like at the end of the season, it’s thanks to her we’re able to do all this,” he said. “She’s taught me to love theater. The teacher you have can really change how you view a subject. … The way she goes about teaching us and helping us learn, I think it’s just very fun, and it helps me enjoy theater a lot more. I feel comfortable working with her. She’s not just a director. She’s very approachable. I’m very glad for that.”

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