Creating school history

Friday, March 30, 2007
Bonnie Farris and Cory Tucker sang "What I've Been Looking For" in a scene from "High School Musical." (Fred Lynch)

TAMMS, Ill. --

Wednesday afternoon in the gymnasium at Egyptian School near Tamms. It's hot inside the gym, and only about half the people who should be here are. But the show must go on, and it does, as about 20 students run through dance numbers and scenes.

Life is imitating art at Egyptian -- the school is putting on its first high school musical. Ironically, they've chosen the stage version of the Disney super-hit movie "High School Musical."

It's an ambitious project for a high school that has only about 200 students. In all 50 students are in the cast, about 30 of them in high school, the rest in middle school. And along with their teachers the group is finding out how hard producing a musical can be.

"The good thing and the bad thing is there are so many parts. It's a massive undertaking," said Amy Sitton, an English teacher at Egyptian who serves as the production's acting coach, performing whatever miscellaneous duties are needed.

Bonnie Farris and Cory Tucker sang "What I've Been Looking For" in a scene from "High School Musical." (Fred Lynch)

Those parts teach the children a lot about musical theater, but they also create challenges. In such a rural school district, Sitton said, getting students to practice regularly can be difficult, especially with conflicting commitments like sports. On Wednesday half the cast was missing because they were playing baseball and softball.

"It's frustrating, but it's all going to be worth it," says Kevin Kobler, a 17-year-old senior who plays Troy, a jock fighting for the lead in the school musical. "Today I have to be three different people."

In reality, Kobler doesn't play any sports. He says he took the inspiration for how to play his character from watching the Disney movie.

Bonnie Farris, another of the leads, is a bit closer to her character in real life. She plays the self-absorbed drama queen prima donna Sharpay, the ruling star of school plays.

Director Jane Hodges said Farris isn't quite as self-absorbed and mean as Sharpay, but she jokes that playing Sharpay really "isn't too far a stretch" for the 16-year-old Farris.

Students at Egyptian High School sang "Start of Something New" while rehearsing a scene for "High School Musical" on Wednesday including, front row from left, Kendra Carter, Jennifer Busby, Cory Tucker and Kevin Kobler. (Fred Lynch)

When asked about her role in the production, Farris shows her Sharpay side, quickly noting before anything else that Sunday, the day after Egyptian's second and final performance of "High School Musical," is her birthday. She hints at the Sharpay in herself, saying one of the biggest obstacles Egyptian's musical has faced is arguments between students about how well they're doing their jobs. But Farris has found a simple remedy.

"You just have to make sure you're doing your part how you're supposed to be doing your part and not worry about the other people," she said.

All the normal school cliques -- jocks, nerds, popular kids, skaters -- are represented in the cast of "High School Musical," and they have their conflicts.

Those conflicts sometimes manifest themselves in the cast, who are more than anything else high schoolers, Hodges said. "It is so typically high school."

The production was part of a natural progression that started when Hodges came to Egyptian a few years ago as a music teacher. Hodges began having her students participate in concerts that went beyond the traditional band and choir recitals, venturing into themed concerts and incorporating dance numbers. Theater was just the next step, Hodges said.

Hodges said the cast and crew have faced plenty of adversity getting ready for the show, from meager resources to getting students together. But this is the first time Egyptian has ever tried a musical, so the challenge was expected, said Hodges, whose only preparation for directing this production was producing church musicals as a church youth leader.

Has the experience been overwhelming? "Absolutely," Hodges says. "It's been a lot of fun, too. It's really opened up the eyes of a lot of the kids."

Along with Hodges and Sitton, a nonfaculty person is helping coach the students' choreography -- Lindsey Quisenberry, a 2004 graduate of Egyptian school. Quisenberry is volunteering her time to work on the production. Thursday she led students through dance moves in a two-hour practice, drilling them on parts that still needed work.

"Without her we would have been lost, because I have two left feet," Hodges said.

Hodges said she doesn't expect Egyptian's "High School Musical" to be as polished as the Disney movie version when it opens tonight. But the minor mess-ups, like the chaotic scene transitions Hodges says make the students look like Keystone Kops, are all masked in the inherent "corniness" of the production.

The students are having fun, though. Rough patches still remained on Wednesday, but the cast and crew are confident everything will pull together for opening night, as it usually does.

"They are peaking," Hodges says of her students. "They're almost getting cocky."

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