C. W. Baker High School
In the grand finale of her theater experiences within the Baldwinsville circuit, Vanessa Vacanti is headlining her final musical as Peter Pan. The show will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 8, Friday, March 9, and Saturday, March 10 at the high school, with a matinee show at 1 p.m. Saturday; Vacanti will appear in the lead role in all evening shows. Fellow senior Mackenzie Bruen will portray Peter Pan in the matinee.
Vanessa is no stranger to the mechanisms of high school theater, as her role of Peter Pan will be her fifth and final role with the Baker High School Musical Players. After portraying roles like Gertrude the Bird in “Seussical” and Betty Haynes in “White Christmas,” she is excited to finally star in a musical as the singular lead. She feels that her close connections with the producers and the teacher run musicals have given her the confidence to really ‘branch out’ and take chances with her art. She knows that without the support of our school program that she wouldn’t be the performer she is today. She says, with great pride, that headlining as Peter Pan in her final show is a great display of how hard she has worked throughout the years to really come into her own as an actress.
Noting Peter’s determination to never, ever grow up and be made into a man, Vanessa has served as quite the paradox to the youthful boy as she portrays him whilst on the cusp of adulthood.
As a senior in high school, Vanessa’s found herself nervous of the quick-coming reality of becoming an adult, quoting that she’s most worried about becoming the kind of adult she has always shied away from. The kind that seems to move about day to day without a notion of vigor or an identified purpose. Even as she goes off on her own she wants to remain cognizant of her new responsibilities while still holding onto her curiosity and love for the world.
“At the end, I just want to know that I always hung onto hope — and isn’t that what Peter Pan really stands for?”
Despite being responsible for bringing the immortal boy to life, Vanessa is a firm believer in the idea that there is no need to push herself to be ‘a boy’ in the age of feminism, no matter the role.“
I can do anything that he can do,” she declared. “Does it matter that Peter is a boy? He’s just a kid. There’s nothing in the role that depends solely upon binary; what he represents is raw youth, joy and liberty — which are defined by nothing.”
It’s audition season all across the country for aspiring musical theater majors, and Vanessa is in no way exempt from the stress of trying to decide her future. Despite the harsh schedule and expectations, Vanessa claims that college auditions have done nothing but solidify her passion for musical theater.
“At my first audition I walked in to see a line of girls doing splits and started freaking out, but after learning the dance and practicing it, I realized I just had to smile my way through it and do my best despite what others may be doing better,” she said. “Doing that really put me back into the correct headspace, the ‘performer-Vanessa’ headspace that I love so much. I felt like I was completely in my element, I was confident— and I realized that that is what it feels like to be doing the thing you love above all else. I have no doubt that this is what I want to do with my life.”
While she’s fully aware of the conflicts and the uncertainty of pursuing a career in the entertainment industry, she knows that any form of success will be worth it because it promises her a sense of accomplishment. Theater is worth it to her because it grants her the freedom of existing apart of herself for one night — or 23. To Vanessa, the whole point of participating in theater is to bring forth a message or lesson to an audience; whether it be on Broadway or not, her goal is to leave something behind.
“The idea of being famous doesn’t appeal to me as much as some people would like to think it does. My goal is to be able to stand on a stage and change someone’s life through a story I have been lucky enough to tell, the same way the actors and actresses I’ve watched have changed mine.”
Like Vanessa, Mackenzie Bruen is well versed in the world of musical theater. She spends her summers learning the craft at workshops in New York City and is thrilled to practice her skills every year with the Baker High School Musical Players. Just last year at our Christmas show she starred as Susan Waverly in “White Christmas,” the granddaughter of the General. But back then no one had suspected her portrayal of the stubborn child would serve as foreshadowing for her final role at Baker High as Peter Pan during the Saturday matinee. Despite four months of rehearsal, she still can’t believe her luck that she’s able to play such a fun role as Peter for her final performance. She says that this role is “sort of me leaving high school ‘with a bang’. I think it’s a great finale to a chapter of my life.”
Similar to her partner, she draws inspiration from Cathy Rigby to really bring the experience of Peter Pan to life. True to the mischievous protagonist, Mackenzie takes Rigby’s philosophy of adding in little tidbits of character to Peter that may not be specified in the script. She feels that a little improv never hurt anyone and that by experimenting she has really become the character and understands him at a deeper level than the script provides. Her loyalty to the character is likely a reason she finds it so easy to connect with Peter Pan. Even when teetering on the edge of adulthood, Mackenzie can connect with the immortal boy and understand his wishes. To quote her character, she doesn’t desire to sit about and learn of solemn things; both just want to play and have fun — “that is why I am majoring in musical theater. I always want to be creative and playful, just like Peter.” Mackenzie has always known she is not the type of person to sit behind a desk for the rest of her life, she wants to experience every opportunity presented to her and spend all of her time on this earth doing the thing she loves — performing.
This role comes with its challenges, though. Not only will Mackenzie have to revisit the mindset of a child, but she will have to convincingly reinvent herself as a petulant boy that has lived his entire life separate from society. Growing up in today’s society, it has already been a fight to prove that girls can do everything that a boy can do.
“But Peter’s not like that,” she said. “He doesn’t understand girls and he always wants to be the toughest boy of all, which is very different than what you might see in society today when we are all so dedicated to equality.”
In the height of our generation’s plight regarding gender roles, both women have taken to playing Peter true to who he is, but not without reminding themselves, and their audiences, that Peter’s ignorance comes from a place of isolation, and that his exposure to Wendy has moved him to a place of honesty that the entire cast hopes will translate to everyone watching and learning from the child who won’t grow up.
When asked, Mackenzie revealed that the one thing she wishes to bring to the world through musical theater is hope. To her, theater reminds her that she is never truly alone (this quote is no doubt a nod to her favorite musical, “Dear Evan Hansen”) and that no matter what she is struggling with, there is always someone else who has had to jump over the same hurdles — maybe if she’s lucky, they wrote them down. A career in theater would mean that she could stand on a stage and remind her audience that there is always hope… even when the dark comes crashing through.
Unsurprisingly, she has found her Broadway idol in Ben Platt, who originated the title role in the Broadway phenomenon “Dear Evan Hansen.”
“His performance in ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ was so beautifully human that it isn’t human,” she gushed. “He moved people to tears and was able to connect to his emotions every single night in such a beautiful way. His out of this world vocals combined with his acting, it’s amazing.”
As she is attracted to roles that require a heavy understanding of human complexities, she aims to one day star as Natasha in the critically-acclaimed show “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” Though she found it hard to choose just one, Mackenzie admitted that she couldn’t think of a more fun role than the young Russian girl that knows nothing of love but is aware of just about any way to fall into it.
Mackenzie has managed to hold onto her love for theater even when going through a process that usually derails hope for young performers: auditions. Even as she flies across the country to perform for countless colleges, she cannot excuse the inexplicable happiness that overcomes her while performing.
“I know it’s a difficult business,” she said, “but I’d never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t at least try.”
After 13 grueling auditions, she has zero doubt about what she wants to do with her life and is excited to say goodbye to Baker High School and jump headfirst into the next chapter of her life.