Nov. 11--It's just before the dress rehearsal for "Aladdin Jr." at Northwest School of the Arts. "Aladdin" is the school's first big show of the year and, for some sixth-graders, the first taste of what a Northwest production is like.
Dressing room doors bang shut while some students get costumes sewn onto them. Girls lean over the bobby-pin-strewn counter, frantically applying eyeliner and heavily scented deodorant.
Amidst the chaos, sixth-grader Jada Jones sits in a chair while a high schooler puts finishing touches on her makeup. Jada's an ensemble member.
Three other sixth-graders are getting ready, too, among others.
Max Orroth, who plays the villain Jafar's right-hand man, gets his mic taped to his forehead and neck.
Yabi Gedewon has donned a massive hat for his Jafar costume. An older student spots him in the hallway. "Is that Jafar?" she gasps. "He's so cute!" Yabi adjusts the hat. "This is crazy, isn't it?" he asks, grinning.
Sophie Teague, a narrator, is given golden bangles and jams them onto her wrist before dashing off to the stage.
Two nights later, they're singing and dancing in the 32-student cast on their first Northwest opening night, Nov. 1.
Their first middle school musical
The performance was a success that night, although Yabi got a few more laughs than intended when he took longer than rehearsed to disappear from his genie character's cave and "they shined a light on my butt and everyone saw it."
Castmates Max, Sophie and Jada get a good chuckle while he recounts the embarrassing moment. And Yabi, who might've been mortified a year ago, laughs off the incident.
Just a couple of months into the school year, there's a change in these four sixth-grade musical theater students: They're boisterous, they're sassy, they're comfortable with each other and with talking in a Northwest conference room. Two months ago, they didn't need much prodding to chat, but now keeping up with the conversation is like watching a pingpong match across the table.
"More confidence," said Andy Lawler, Northwest's arts director, about what they've gained by performing in a school musical.
These audiences are bigger than in elementary school -- it's more than just parents who come to Northwest shows -- and the production values are better, too. Northwest musicals, even at the middle school level, are major productions: For "Aladdin," there were set, costume and lighting designers, a choreographer, stage managers, deck hands and more.
The four said they particularly enjoyed performing for fifth-graders from First Ward Elementary and showing them around the school that they're now experts at navigating.
One thing hasn't changed: their enthusiasm for school and for musical theater.
"I thought it was way better than any theater I've performed," Max said of "Aladdin."
"Now it just makes me feel so cool to be a part of Northwest because I used to be the one in the audience saying, 'I wish I could be up there,'" Sophie said.
Lessons from 'Aladdin'
They learned the musical -- and much more -- in a month, they said.
"We expect greatness, and they bring it," said the show's director, Sarah Buckner.
She said she's amazed by how quickly sixth-graders can tackle the learning curve.
"They're coming from elementary school, and middle school, academically, is such a different beast. And it's a giant school full of high schoolers too, and they're having to adapt to rehearsals," she said. "We're throwing them into the deep end and telling them to swim, and for the most part, they do."
Yabi had to work on playing a villain and getting mean. He also learned the importance of projecting his voice. "My voice can go louder now than it normally can."
Jada loved making new friends and learned how to dance on a less springy surface than what she's used to. Sophie learned the importance of facial expressions: "We had to be like E! News reporters" in "performing" the news, she said. She also learned she likes dancing; she didn't think she was good at that.
Max studied how to do an evil laugh -- Yabi said the first attempt "sounded like a kitten" -- and also how to act oafish on stage. He said he also learned it's important to practice dance techniques instead of just memorizing routines, to become more natural.
Offstage, the four said they're dealing with more homework than they've ever had and learning how to manage their time. Jada said she tries to do as much in advance as she can, and Yabi said he learned he's got to do his assignments the day they're assigned or he'll get behind.
They're also continuing their musical theater education.
In class, the sixth-graders are singing solos from various musicals in a scene they've written themselves. "We have to learn how to do emotions," Max said. They're about to finish the final part of their musical theater history lessons, too. For the school's spring music review, they'll begin working on songs from "The Wizard of Oz" and "Grease."
Outside of school, they're busy: Yabi is playing soccer, Jada is dancing as a soldier for N.C. Dance Theatre's "Nutcracker," and Max wants to audition for a Christmas production somewhere. Sophie said she's considering returning to voice and keyboard lessons, now that school life is settling down.
The love circle
Exhilarated from their first musical performance, they all had a common favorite experience: the love circle. It was a cast gathering between two Saturday shows when everyone said something they loved about the cast. "I started to cry," Sophie and Jada said simultaneously.
Now they're excited about prospects for next fall's musical, but it's a whole year away. "When I listen to 'Aladdin' songs now, it's sad because it means it's over," Yabi said.
Jada agreed. "It was amazing."
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