Catching the holdiday spirits

Local 6-year-old in Dickens classic on McCarter stage.

By: Jessica Beym
   Mary Rose Brendel turns 6 today.
   But as the youngest actress in the McCarter Theatre performance of "A Christmas Carol," this busy Cranbury School kindergartner will be celebrating her birthday on stage tonight in Princeton.
   Since rehearsals began in November, Mary Rose, who plays Belinda Cratchit, has practiced nearly every day of the week, sometimes for 12-hour shifts.
   "At first, I was nervous about leaving her there, but they’ve all attached to her and look out for her. She gets along with everyone," said Nancy Brendel, Mary Rose’s mother.
   An over-excited chatterbox, Mary Rose bounced around the Christmas tree in her home on Park View Road on Monday afternoon as she talked about the play.
   "I like my costumes, and one of my favorite things is to act," said Mary Rose. "I like to play and be someone I’m not."
   Ms. Brendel said her daughter wanted to be a performer since day one.
   "She’s always putting on little shows and trying to recruit her brothers," said Ms. Brendel, who moved to Cranbury two and a half years ago with her husband, Phillip, and Mary Rose and her brothers, P.J., 3, and Timmy, 1.
   "She wanted me to find her a drama class when we moved here but she was too young," she said.
   But even though Mary Rose was only 4 years old at the time, Tim Brownell, the First State coordinator at McCarter Theatre, accepted her into the Creative Dramatics class, which is normally open to kids in kindergarten and first grade.
   "He was the only one that would accept her at that age. He’s been very supportive," Ms. Brendel said.
   Through the class, Ms. Brendell and Mary Rose learned about the theater’s production of "A Christmas Carol." But auditioning for the play was her daughter’s idea, Ms. Brendel said.
   At the tryouts in October, about 130 kids showed up to audition for 13 parts.
   "I didn’t realize it was a big show. I thought it was just for kids. But then it was all kids with head shots and agents. It wasn’t what I was expecting," said Ms. Brendel.
   After her audition, Mary Rose made callbacks and was cast into the production. With all of the required rehearsal hours and 27 scheduled performances, the Brendels have had to make a few adjustments.
   "Going back and forth, making sure she’s there — it’s been a lot for the other two kids, and for all of us. Our whole life style has changed," said Ms. Brendel. "We’re all really overwhelmed and just really proud of her."
   In the past few weeks, Mary Rose also has missed a number of school days, but Ms. Brendel said her teachers have been supportive and have sent home schoolwork.
   For her work, Mary Rose was compensated with a small stipend and a number of free tickets to the performance. Ms. Brendel said their family and friends, even a couple who flew out from California, came to see Mary Rose in the play.
   Every other performance, one of her parents takes a turn as an usher so that they can see her in the show as well.
   Today, Friday, there will be two shows, at 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. The two final shows are on Christmas Eve at noon and 4 p.m.
   Ms. Brendel said she is a little worried her daughter will miss the interaction with her new friends once the play is over. She said Mary Rose has grown close to her co-star, Danny Hallowell, 7, who plays Tiny Tim and has been in the play the past two years.
   Danny’s parents warned Ms. Brendel that the kids often have a hard time adjusting once the play is over.
   "Other parents have warned me: Don’t be surprised if there’s tears the next day. It’s a big let-down. They spend so much time, and then, all of a sudden, bam, it’s over," Ms. Brendel said.
   But once the show is over, Mary Rose will be right back on stage in her fourth session of Creative Dramatics at McCarter Theatre. While they aren’t seeking any other performances, Ms. Brendel said they may take on other opportunities if they crop up.
   "She already said she wants to do it again next year."