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A Good Fit

Cast size, beloved plays factor into choosing a spring production.

Twice a year, high school drama teachers must make a difficult decision: Which play or musical is right for my students?

A variety of factors play a part in this decision, from the size of the school, the amount of space on the stage, the talent and ages of the cast. So how does a teacher decide?

For Alan Brooks, the drama teacher in his first year at Lee High School, this year provided the chance to take on performances he's always hoped to direct.

"We're doing 'Little Shop of Horrors' for our spring Cappies production," said Brooks. "It's a little harder acting because it's a farcical show, but you need to keep the comedy grounded in reality."

The story of a plant from outer space that constantly demands to be fed by Seymour, the nerdy yet lovable and somewhat unlucky man who found the plant, is a classic tale of a good deed gone wrong.

With a cast of only 11 students, Brooks said he added an extra group of dancers and singers to build up the bare-bones cast requirements.

"There are so many students involved in this production, as choreographers and designers and light and sound technicians," he said. "Aside from myself and the technical director, it's entirely done by students," which, he hopes, will help grow the drama department at Lee.

Brooks decided to give his students one month between casting and their first rehearsal, to let them research and develop their characters.

"They came in a lot closer to professional actors than any group I've ever seen before," he said. "The meat of acting is finding that emotional connection with the character based on how you as a person would react to something."

He warned the students from the beginning that the play would not be a mirror of the movie version of the story, most recently starring Rick Moranis and Ellen Green as Audrey, the object of Seymour's affection.

"With the Internet and everything being online, I think most of the kids had copies of the movie and the soundtrack before I finished the sentence" announcing the play, Brooks said. "The play has a totally different ending than the movie. They've done their homework."

Casting the play was difficult only because of the small number of students needed, he said. With a strong supply of talent, Brooks said he was able to select students based on their abilities, not on how the roles have traditionally been cast.

"Our Audrey is an African American girl in a role that's typically been played as a blond bombshell type," he said. "She got the part because she's the one who can connect with the part the best. That's what people care about."

With senior Jasmine Coles as Audrey and sophomore Spencer Ramirez as Seymour, "Little Shop of Horrors" will be on stage at Lee High School April 28, 29 and May 5 and 6 at 7:30 p.m.

AT FIRST, FAIRFAX High School drama teacher Wendy Flora felt a little trepidation as she handed the F/X Players this semester's Cappies play. "J.B.," a Pulitzer prize-winning play by Archibald MacLiesh, was Flora's favorite play while she was a student at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, she said, and she wanted to give it to a group of students who could do it justice.

"I fell in love with the play immediately," said Flora.

However, said Flora, the group of students that make up the Fairfax drama club have proved themselves capable of taking on the challenging play. "J.B." is a semi-satirical modern retelling of the Old Testament story of Job, where the main character J.B. (Job) undergoes trials and questions of faith in the setting of a circus tent, while dealing with circus vendors Zuss (God) and Nickles (Satan). Written entirely in verse, the play focuses on the interactions between Zuss and Nickles, and raises difficult and probing questions about faith, suffering, and human spirituality. According to Flora, the play is careful not to answer the questions but rather to allow audience members to develop their own answers. This also causes students to think deeply about these questions as well, she said.

"It forces kids to think a lot about their own journey and to identify how they think about the world and their place in it," said Flora.

Although the play is a challenge to act and emotionally taxing as well, the students have impressed her in their grasp of the material, said Flora. It is only the second week of rehearsal, but the actors have picked up the essence of their characters.

"The kids have to sift their way through to find out what their character is really trying to say," she said. Luckily, the students have been eager to tackle the material.

"It's confirmed my personal philosophy of teaching," said Flora. "You set the bar really, really high."

J.B. will play at Fairfax High School Thursday, April 27 through Saturday, April 29 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 30 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $5 for students and $10 for adults.

AT WEST SPRINGFIELD, teacher Mary Jo Levesque chose "Les Miserables, the School Edition" for her spring musical.

"It's my favorite of all musicals," she said. "I felt we had the perfect group of young people right now to do this performance."

After years of trying to get the rights to do the musical, Levesque said she finally got approval earlier this school year.

"We have the right talent pool to do it and we also found out that it's coming back to Broadway this fall," said Levesque. "It's just perfect timing."

The story, set during the French Revolutionary War, has themes of patriotism and immigration that she feels are especially pertinent at West Springfield High School.

"We have a lot of military families and families from around the world at West Springfield, but there's a lot of patriots here," she said. "Our community makes me proud to teach at a school with this background."

When she was preparing to cast the show, Levesque said she was surprised with the number of first-time actors that showed interest in performing.

"You never know where the interest is with some of the kids, or where their talents are at first," she said. "But the first time I heard them all sing as a group, I got goose bumps. It hit me as a signal that we've done the right thing."

More than 130 students auditioned for the show, almost double the 75 students she needed. "Normally, I try to double-cast my shows to give as many parts to the girls as possible, because we have so many girls that want to participate," she said. "I just couldn't do that this time, the show is too big as it is."

A lack of female roles is among the largest complaints Levesque has with high school productions, but she tries to include as many students as possible.

"This show is almost like an opera and everyone had to be able to sing and dance and act well," she said. "Every year, there's a slightly different talent pool. The kids are all so enthusiastic about this play."

Bobby Hundemer will play Jean Valjean and Meredith Mazie will be Fantine in "Les Miserables, the School Edition," which will be on stage at West Springfield High School, starting Wednesday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m.

A LARGE CAST and an array of leading female roles led Robinson Secondary School theater director Chip Rome to choose Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" for Robinson's spring musical. After the initial uncertainty about performing a "kids" musical, said Rome, students are getting excited about the production.

"We are now on a massive morale upsurge," said Rome.

"Beauty and the Beast" has only been available for high school theater producers for a few years, said Rome, so the Robinson production will be breaking some new ground. For example, he said, they still need to figure out how to transform the Beast into a handsome prince, a major makeup and costume change that takes place entirely onstage.

"We're drawing from everything we can," said Rome.

One of the best aspects of "Beauty and the Beast," said Rome, is the music. Anyone directing a high school theater production is bound to get the songs stuck in their head, he said, but "Beauty and the Beast" music is actually pleasant to have on continuous mental loop.

Luckily, since the musical is in the spring and does not conflict with marching band season, the pit orchestra will be in full force, said Rome. The production materials come with CDs that the students can use to learn the music, which makes the process much easier, he said.

The April showing is half sold out already, said Rome.

"['Beauty and the Beast'] certainly has name value, and for good reasons," said Rome. "It's got something to say, and is broad in the retelling."

Sophomore Chris Caputo will play Belle, and junior Kent Wyckoff will play the Beast. Gaston will be played by senior Eric Strott, while the candlestick, Lumière, and clock, Cogsworth, will be played by Robert Rome and Michael Allen, respectively. Katie Serence will play Mrs. Potts the teapot, Katie Summerlin will play Babette the feather duster, and Katie Valez will play the wardrobe.

"Beauty and the Beast" will play at Robinson Secondary School Friday, April 28 and Saturday, April 29, at 7:30 p.m., and Friday, May 5, and Saturday, May 6 at 7:30 p.m. It will also play Sunday, April 30 and Saturday, May 6 at 2:00 p.m.

NEARLY EVERYTHING is still new and waiting to be discovered at South County Secondary School, giving drama teacher Sherry Adams Johnson the added challenge of finding a performance suitable for both middle and high school students.

"I wanted to pick a show with a large cast that I hadn't directed before," said Adams Johnson. "I chose 'Oliver!' because it needs a large cast that runs the gamut in terms of ages and abilities."

With 80 students in the cast, assigning roles was "more complex than the play itself," she laughed. "I was not just concerned about whether the student could act the part, but we had to go through the singing audition, the acting audition, the dancing audition, and all of those directors had input over who got the roles."

Luckily, she had "just the right amount of students" audition for the play, based on the novel "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens.

This will be the third performance at the school, following "You Can't Take It With You" last fall and a series of 10 one-act plays performed in February.

It is also the third time the school has benefited from a partnership with the Lorton Arts Foundation, which supplied funding for Suzie Celentano to come in as the choreographer and Linda Evans, returning as the lighting and sound technical advisor for the performance.

"This play lends itself well to a combined middle school and high school show," said Adams Johnson. "There's a good variety of heights needed for the show. I think it was a good choice."

Freshman Alex Dyson will perform the role of Oliver, joined by sophomore Ray Yankee as Fagan and junior Molly Dickinson as Nancy in the play, which will open on Friday, May 5 at 7:30 p.m. at South County Secondary School.