When the lights go down in the Jones Middle School auditorium tonight (Thursday, Oct. 27) for the opening night of "Beauty and the Beast Jr.," the production will be performed with a special educator in mind.

When the lights go down in the Jones Middle School auditorium tonight (Thursday, Oct. 27) for the opening night of “Beauty and the Beast Jr.,” the production will be performed with a special educator in mind.

“Beauty and the Beast” will be the school’s first fall production without director Suzie Matthews, who organized the show for nearly 30 years. Last March, Matthews died after a years-long battle with cancer.

“She was really what made fall production what it is today,” said parent coordinator Jeanine Hummer. “The program involves hundreds of kids, and has always been an integral part of the middle school. I still run into people who say they were part of fall production when they were in school. It’s a rite of passage for kids in middle school.”

Nearly 200 students from sixth through eighth grade are participating in this year’s production, according to co-director Kathy Preston.

“This is the first year we double-casted just the main (roles), and we split the chorus between castle chorus and villager chorus because there’s so many kids, and the costume changes are just so tremendous,” Preston said. “They’re very excited at this point — finally getting into their costumes is helpful, because they can really see how things come together, how the stage comes together.

“It’s a change after Suzie’s passing,” she said. “We’ve come together more as a production team. It’s hard to fill shoes like that. The show will never be the same, but we’re very excited about continuing the tradition and making it a positive experience for the kids.”

The middle school’s cafeteria hummed with activity earlier this week as dozens of parent volunteers helped to build sets and get kids into their costumes.

“It really is a fun play because of all the costumes,” said seventh-grader Nathan Blossom. “I think we’re getting really serious about it.”

“It’s fun because all of us get to be a part of it,” said sixth-grader Kileigh Casey.

“It’s a good experience to get out there and show people what we can do,” seventh-grader Chad Lewis said.

While the fall production classically includes a donation collection for the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research, this year’s audience will also be asked to pitch in for a new fund created in Matthews’ name. The fund was thought up by UAHS senior Amira Hummer to serve as her senior Capstone project. Fifty percent of the donations from this year’s fall production will go toward the Spielman Fund, with the remainder going to the new Suzie Matthews Memorial Fund.

Hummer said the fund will be used to improve the music department at Jones Middle School. The school will also host a winter event to benefit the memorial fund, as well as a talent show in May.

“I believe Ms. Matthews was a teacher who created inspiration in her students,” Hummer said. “She was a testament to the importance of music. When she was battling breast cancer, she often found comfort in her instruments. And now, more than ever, it is important that we honor the memory of a teacher who believed wholeheartedly in the importance of music education.”

“Beauty and the Beast Jr.” opens at 7 p.m. tonight at the Jones Middle School auditorium, 2100 Arlington Ave. Performances are also scheduled at 7 p.m. Friday, and Oct. 29-30 at 2 p.m. Tickets for the show are $7, and can be purchased either at the door or at the school’s main office.

More details on the show can be found online at www.jmschoir.com.