Young performers launch USO-style show to lift spirits

April 24, 2020 Cranberry Local News

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Fantastix is a performance troupe in the greater Pittsburgh area. Started by Cranberry Township resident Mary Ann Mangini in 2015, the group has 35 students ages 9 to 17, many of whom are in the Seneca Valley School District. With the coronavirus pandemic causing the cancellation and postponement of a number of gigs, Fantastix is organizing a virtual USO show for the public.

Cranberry Township resident Mary Ann Mangini believes music heals.

“It unites people,” Mangini said. “It is a magical force that can pull you out of a funk, or make your sad mood feel validated.”

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Mangini says the world can use some healing.

That's part of why she's trying to launch a virtual, USO-type show for the community with her youth performance troupe Fantastix. Fantastix is an auditioned group in the Pittsburgh region and has 35 students ranging from 9 to 17 years old.

“Many folks have compared this COVID-19 crisis to a wartime experience,” Mangini said. “During wartimes, USO show performers would lift the spirits of the soldiers.”

Inspired by stars such as Bob Hope who took their talents overseas to entertain troops during World War II, Mangini's idea to hold a virtual show started in March.

When Pennsylvanians began quarantining, Mangini recorded an hour-long show of herself singing and playing the piano. The recording was uploaded to YouTube and shared with shut-ins and residents in senior living communities.

Then, Mangini brought the idea of doing a bigger variety show to her students.

'Virtual cabaret'

“They were all so excited when I mentioned creating a virtual cabaret,” Mangini said.

“I love helping out my community,” said Avery Flood, a Seneca Valley High School freshman who has been part of Fantastix since it started in 2015. “That's just what me and my family do.”

Avery and her parents, Alecia and Mickey Flood, live in Zelienople. She said she wanted to be part of the show to “spread positivity and lift people up.”

“(To) show people that it will be over soon,” Avery said. “Just keep smiling.”

Part of the show includes interviews with students. Mangini spent an afternoon asking students about their quarantine experiences. Avery is one of them.

“People need to know that, 'Yes, this is a rough time,'” Avery said. “But there's also some good that's come out of it.”

Asking students for their perspective was an important part of the project, according to Mangini.

“They are very candid,” Mangini said. “You can just see their beautiful hearts radiating as they speak about their community and the impact of this virus.”

Staying true to the variety nature of World War II USO shows, Fantastix has coordinated about an hour of performances from 27 troupe members.

Mangini asked students to film short performances of their choosing and email recordings to her, to be compiled with the interviews. A few performance numbers from Fantastix's previous events were added to the mix.

Mangini said audiences can watch students doing everything from juggling to playing the trumpet.

“They can look for me just singing and playing my guitar,” Avery said.

Avery said her favorite part of the project has been witnessing the talents of her fellow performers. She said the show has helped her build relationships with the other students in Fantastix.

“We're all like a family,” Avery said.

From the director's perspective, Mangini has seen the show help students cope with canceled or postponed gigs, like Fantastix's musical production of “Into the Woods.”

The production is scheduled for June 5 through 14 at the Comtra Theatre in Cranberry Township. Mangini doesn't know if the show will go on.

“Everything came to a screeching halt once COVID-19 hit our region,” Mangini said.

Fantastix was also slated to share billing with The Fabulous Gemtones for a May 15 production at the Kean Theatre in Gibsonia. Mangini said that show has been rescheduled for December.

Make people smile

Fantastix isn't using sponsors or charging viewers for its virtual USO show. Mangini said the project's only goal is to reach people and make them smile.

“I think it's important for all to see that our future is in good hands with these kids,” Mangini said. “They have hearts of gold. So do their parents.”

While Mangini wants her students' performance to entertain people in quarantine, she also wants it to show students the importance of serving others in a dark time. Watching kids grow in confidence and develop their skills while serving the community has been an enlightening experience for Mangini.

“I don't think there's anything better,” Mangini said.

Though the show is for everyone, Avery especially wants it to reach a specific audience.

“It would be nice for kids my age to see it,” Avery said. “And elders (in) nursing homes.”

Avery said she has seen some parts of the show because a few friends have sent her their clips. But the full production will be a treat for her, too. When it airs, Avery said she and her family will watch it together.

Mangini said the show is now in the hands of a professional editor. There isn't an official air date for it, but Mangini hopes it will be picked up by Armstrong's cable Channel 10 in the next couple of weeks. Mangini also plans to launch the show on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram in an effort to serve the larger Pittsburgh area.

The goal is to run it while people are still in quarantine.

“I hope it will air more than once,” Mangini said. “What better way to raise spirits than watching kids singing and dancing?”

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Samantha Beal

Samantha Beal