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March 1, 2015 - 6:00pm

Chimney sweep in Pembroke's 'Mary Poppins' meets challenge of deafness straight-ahead and chin up

posted by laurie napoleone in pembroke high school, musical, Mary Poppins, Elisha Muir.

Elisha Muir will be playing the key role of chimney sweep Bert in the classic musical "Mary Poppins" later this week at Pembroke School. Though Elisha is no stranger to the stage -- he has been in a number of Pembroke productions as well as Batavia Players -- this will be sort of a new experience for him.

Last summer he went suddenly and profoundly deaf, possibly due to a virus. He's since been on a remarkable journey -- diagnosis, surgery, learning, re-learning and preparing for his role.

He will be hearing with new ears, so to speak, made possible with surgical implants. The result is sure to delight the listening audience, starting Thursday night.

In early August last year, Elisha was working when he felt “off balance” and was diagnosed with vertigo. This dizziness progressed and with it he started to experience hearing loss -- first in the right ear, then in the left. In a few short weeks, just prior to the start of his senior year, Elisha was deaf.

He had been to a number of physicians and they are theorizing that a virus found its way into the cochlea, which led to a condition known as vestibular neuritis and labyrinthitis.

“They think this is what happened but the doctors really don’t know," he said.

The start of the school year posed a challenge and Elisha had to change his course schedule and missed some class time due to numerous appointments and surgery. Elisha could have opted to be home tutored while going through this, but chose to continue in school making changes as necessary. Jody Benatovich, Elisha’s mother, credited Pembroke School in promptly assisting Elisha with necessary accommodations.

In October, only a month after the start of school and a day before his 18th birthday, Elisha underwent surgery and received bilateral cochlear implants. A cochlear implant is a small electronic device that helps to create sound and makes it possible for the wearer to hear again. A microphone, worn behind the ear picks up the sound and sends a message to a speech processor, which is worn on the body. This then changes the sound into information that gets transmitted via the implant to the brain.

At first, Elisha said “that all sound came in at once…I had and continue to practice listening in different environments."

In November, Elisha auditioned for "Mary Poppins" despite his inability to hear himself sing.

“Singing without hearing, is like driving without your eyes," he said.

With the help of his music director, Dan Reisdorf, Elisha has been preparing to play the role of the loveable character Bert in the upcoming play. Residorf used special music education techniques (i.e. solfege, audiation) to assist Elisha when he had lost his hearing.  

The most amazing thing about Elisha is his attitude about this significant and swift change in his life.

“It is something that 'is', not something that has to be overcome," Elisha said, matter-of-factly. "It’s a different fork in the road.”

He continues to make progress and is making plans to study anthropology after graduation. He's looking at University of  Buffalo or Rochester Institute of Technology (National Institute for the Deaf). His mom said he has maintained a good attitude throughout this ordeal, which has been inspirational for both her and Elisha’s sister.

“Elisha’s ability to maintain his sense of humor and strong work ethic throughout his senior year has been impressive and admirable," Reisdorf said.

As Elisha takes the stage for the first time fitted with his cochlear implants, listening and feeling rhythmically for his cues, he will be joined by a talented cast.

The leading lady is Harmony Bordinaro, who has the title role of Mary Poppins. Harmony participated in the New York State Summer School of the Arts (NYSSSA) for Musical Theatre and was an alto in the NYSSMA All-State Chorus this past December. Her plan is to major in Musical Theater in Florida.

Matthew Kowalski, who plays Mr. George Banks, appeared in last year's production of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" as Jimmy Smith. Matthew plans to attend college for music composition.

Emilee Houseknecht, who impressed the audience last year as the lead character Millie Dillmount, returns as the wonderful Mrs. Winnifred Banks.

Jane and Michael Banks are being played by seventh-graders Brianna Warrant and Michael Pfenninger, newcomers who have stepped into their roles beautifully. Juniors Alison Reiner (Mrs. Brill) Greg Pelkey (Robertson Ay) and Quinn Audsley (Miss Andrew) bring new characters to life from the original book by P.L. Travers.

"Mary Poppins" runs March 5th, 6th and 7th at 7:30 p.m. with an added matinee at 2 p.m. on March 7. Tickets are $8 for students and senior citizens, and $10 for adults and can be purchased at www.pembrokemusicals.com.

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