Forest Hills Eastern musical pays tribute to late student

ADA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — There will be an empty seat in the crowd Thursday night at the Forest Hills Fine Arts Center for Forest Hills Eastern’s performance of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

It is designated in memory of 17-year-old Tessa Stanley, a student remembered by her friends as a gifted performer whose joy was contagious.

Stanley, a senior at Forest Hills Eastern High School, died Dec. 11 after she was hit by a vehicle while crossing the road. She was supposed to play Ursula in the school’s production of “The Little Mermaid.” Thursday is the musical’s opening night.

Photos of Tessa Stanley in the program for Forest Hill Eastern High School's production of "The Little Mermaid." (Feb. 7, 2024)
Photos of Tessa Stanley in the program for Forest Hill Eastern High School’s production of “The Little Mermaid.” (Feb. 7, 2024)

Trey Butka, a senior who is playing the role of Sebastian, said Stanley helped choose the musical in the first place. Butka said they both pitched the idea to their theater teacher.

“We kind of both took it on, and it kind of sort of became our child almost,” Butka said. “I wish she could see it today, where it’s at right now, because I think she would be so proud of it.”

Butka said that every single day since Stanley’s death, “I’ve never forgotten her.”

“Every single day, every single time I’m singing, every single time I’m acting, I’m just always thinking of her,” Butka said. “Because that’s what she was so good at.”

Stanley’s friends said theater was her passion that filled her with happiness. Her teacher and theater director, Annie Hebel, called her the “most animated performer” she’s seen at her age.

“Her facial expressions lit up the stage,” Hebel recalled.

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Quinten Powers, a senior who is portraying King Triton, said Stanley was like a bright light.

“I think no matter who knew her, no matter if they’re her best friend or not even close to being her best friend, they knew she was great and a wonderful person,” Powers said.

After Stanley’s death, just weeks after production began, Butka said the cast gathered and grieved together.

“We had a little meeting after it all happened and we kind of just came together and cried,” Butka said.

They later shared their favorite memories of Stanley. Ultimately, they decided the show must go on because that’s what Stanley would have wanted.

“I think the audience needs to know we kept going through it and we’re doing the show for her,” Powers said.

Hebel said the students showed resilience, caring and kindness in how they rallied together.

“They filled in the gaps I would normally fill, and they’ve done it themselves,” Hebel said. “It taught them how to step up and it taught them leadership. I see Tessa in all of their faces. That makes me happy and it makes me feel like we did the right thing.”

In Stanley’s place, it was decided Hebel would take on the role of Ursula. She said she will do her best to match Stanley’s bright spirit on stage.

“Hopefully my facial expressions will be as big and vibrant as hers,” Hebel said.

Forest Hills Eastern Theater director Annie Hebel stepped in to play Ursula in "The Little Mermaid" following the death of student Tessa Stanley. (Feb. 7, 2024)
Forest Hills Eastern Theater director Annie Hebel stepped in to play Ursula in “The Little Mermaid” following the death of student Tessa Stanley. (Feb. 7, 2024)

Butka said Stanley’s teacher filling her shoes is what Stanley would have wanted.

“I think Ms. Hebel is doing a great job to honor her,” Butka said.

Stanley was going to study at Central Michigan University, Hebel said. She was considering becoming a history teacher one day.

“I would tease her constantly that no she’s not going to be a history teacher, she was going to be me,” Hebel said. “She was going to do my job, she was going to direct theater and broadcasting and those types of courses.”

Every time Hebel goes off the stage, she says she sees Stanley’s face.

“Because she would’ve been the first one to give you a high five after your performance after you’ve just come off stage, even if you goofed up or missed a line,” Hebel said. “She would’ve been high fiving you telling you it’s OK.”

Opening night kicks off at 7 p.m. Thursday. The cast will also perform Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m, as well as at 3 p.m. Saturday.

The cast hopes to get a full house.

“It’s for Tessa, so come see it for her, for her honor,” Butka said.

You can buy tickets here.

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