John Marshall 5th Grader on National 'Sound of Music' Tour

Dakota Quackenbush

For Dakota Quackenbush, an East Hampton fifth grader who is beginning a six-month national tour with "The Sound of Music," the past few weeks have been a whirlwind.

Following an open audition in New York the weekend of the big snowstorm in early January, she made it to final callbacks, got word just over two weeks ago that she had gotten the part of Brigitta, and finally flew to Iowa City with her mother on Monday to join the cast.

At an all-school meeting on Friday at the John M. Marshall Elementary School, the principal, Beth Doyle, announced what she called the "bittersweet news" that Dakota would be leaving school for the rest of the year to tour with a professional Broadway musical. It was not until Tuesday that the name of the musical could be revealed.

This production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is directed by Jack O'Brien, who won Tony Awards for his direction of "Henry IV," "Hairspray," and "The Coast of Utopia." After its run in Iowa City, it will play in a dozen more cities, including Nashville, Memphis, West Palm Beach, and Washington, D.C., with its closest stop in Waterbury, Conn., between March 7 and 12.

At 10, Dakota is already a veteran stage actor, in both school and professional productions. Fellow John Marshall students remember her as the lead in "Annie" in the fall of 2015. She appeared this fall in the Bay Street Theater's Literature Live! production of "The Scarlet Letter," and got her start in professional theater in the Bay Street production of "Grey Gardens: The Musical" in the summer of 2015.

She has also appeared at Guild Hall's John Drew Theater in a number of Our Fabulous Variety Show offerings.

"I could tell at a very young age that she could carry a tune," her mother, Danielle Quackenbush, said by phone from Iowa City Tuesday. As early as kindergarten, it was obvious she had a way with the audience, and after she wowed a crowd -- and her parents -- at the Harbor Grill, her mother decided to enroll her in voice lessons. A star was born.

She studied dance at Dancehampton in East Hampton, too. In 2015, Anita Boyer, a dance teacher and founder of Our Fabulous Variety Show, heard her singing during a dance class and offered her a part in her Christmas production at Guild Hall. Once again, she nailed it.

"Everyone had tears in their eyes," her mom said. John Sullivan, an associate producer at Bay Street, was in the audience and asked for Dakota's contact information. Not long after, Stewart/Whitley, the agency casting "Grey Gardens," called her in for an audition.

Ms. Quackenbush said her daughter shines onstage, and when a show ends, she almost falls into a funk. "She's more herself and purely happy when she's performing."

So Ms. Quackenbush transformed herself into stage mom-manager-agent and kept on the lookout for child roles that might be right for Dakota. "I knew that I just needed to keep trying for something." They have been in and out of the city for auditions. For "The Sound of Music" audition, 350 children tried out; only 7 would be chosen. "I hate to say I didn't think we stood a chance, but. . . ."

After landing the part, mother and daughter had two and a half weeks to arrange everything. "This was a big life-changer," Ms. Quackenbush said. For Dakota, it means leaving behind friends at John Marshall and skipping a competition dance trip to Walt Disney World with her Dancehampton team. They will be away from Dakota's father, James, and her 4-year-old sister for weeks at a time, and will miss a planned family cruise. Her sister and an au pair will join them on tour after the vacation.

Dakota will study with a tutor to keep up with her schoolwork. On that front, her mother is not worried. "She's always been a bright student. She's a major bookworm," and because she is so happy when she is involved in a production, she is better at juggling her time and getting her work done.

The tour wraps up in July. For now, Ms. Quackenbush expects Dakota to start the 2017-18 school year at the East Hampton Middle School, but who knows what future roles await.