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‘It’s been over the moon’: OPHS students embrace experience at Illinois High School Musical Theatre

Being nominated for Broadway in Chicago’s Illinois High School Musical Theatre Awards felt unreal for Oak Park and River Forest High School seniors Maura Pawelko and Aidan Lenehan.

“It’s super unexpected, and I’m in shock it happened,” Pawelko said. “We’re with such talented actors and actresses. [The experience,] it’s been over the moon.”

Students were invited from high schools across the state last week to participate in Broadway in Chicago’s Illinois High School Musical Theatre Awards. The annual program aims to celebrate the achievements of young actors and actresses for their performance in musical theater.

Pawelko and Lenehan received nominations for their portrayals in Oak Park and River Forest High School’s production of “Hairspray” as Velma Von Tussle and Edna Turnblad, respectively.

Students attended the awards ceremony, along with a series of workshops.

Lenehan is a familiar face on the OPRF stage, having performed in five productions. He said his family has been very supportive of him and is very into musicals and show tunes.

Lenehan said he enjoyed being part of “Hairspray” and “figuring out what moments to be funny, when to be a geeky mom, and when to be a real mom” for the role of Edna Turnblad.

“I knew when to be serious and when to be light-hearted and fun,” he added.

Pawelko has experience performing at OPRF, as well. She started acting in sixth grade. Around that time, she said a friend encouraged her to audition.

“I’ve been hooked ever since,” Pawelko said.

Pawelko said she was excited to be part of “Hairspray”.

“‘Hairspray’ is a fun show,” she said. “It’s a huge production with dance numbers,” adding that it tells a very important message about diversity and inclusion.

Lenehan said in bringing Edna Turnblad to the stage, his portrayal was inspired, in part, by his mother.

Pawelko gave thanks to Michelle Bayer, the director of OPRF’s “Hairspray” production.

“I would not be the performer I am without her,” she said.

Bayer was nominated for best direction at this year’s Illinois High School Musical Theatre Awards.

Pawelko envisions herself honing her craft further while studying in college.

“That’s the goal,” she said. “I’m planning to major in musical theater.”

Lenehan hopes to work in the show business moving forward. He said participating in the daylong program means his hard work has paid off, and “it reassured me that I’m on the right track.”

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