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Middle School Musical

Cinderella and the prince made a triumphal entry as their loyal subjects applauded. Everyone burst into song for the big finish. But the middle school musical’s fairy tale ending needed more work: The arm raises weren’t in sync on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Impossible.”

Fortunately, a couple of fairy godmothers were on hand to help. As the last note faded, a dozen eager faces turned to the director, NC State student Jessica Ritter, a Park scholar who’s helped with the annual musical at Centennial Campus Middle School for four years. She’s carrying on the tradition of Curtain Call, a creative service project that began six years ago with a dedicated crew of drama buffs and a $1,000 grant from the Park program.

With opening night two weeks away, cast members quickly fixed the finale and ran through it with confidence. To wrap up the after-school session, Ritter and Elyse Smith, a Park scholar who directed two previous productions, shared a critique with the attentive young actors.

All in all, it had been a productive rehearsal. Cinderella was more comfortable with the blocking in her sweeping scene. The dancers were getting the hang of the gavotte. The stepsisters showed solid comedic timing in their musical lament, although it was a little over the top. And the prince needed to convey a sense of urgency in the garden scene. “We’ll work more on it later,” Ritter promised.

As the cast departed, music teacher Sarah Smith’s classroom remained in cheerful disarray with gallons of paint and scenery flats pushed to the corners. The pumpkin coach wasn’t painted yet, but the fountain was finished and the columns were coming along nicely, thanks to a parent and daughter painting in the hallway.

Other volunteers were lending a hand with the costumes, which included voluminous crinolines and a sparkly gown for the petite Cinderella, who bears a slight resemblance to Gabriella of “High School Musical” fame.

Three times a week, Ritter and a varying assortment of Park scholars, including Smith, Michael McKnight, Brian Carter, Christina Ritter, Jamie Meyers and Kelly Quesnel, lend a hand with the vocals, acting and dance sequences in Cinderella. The Park scholars, chosen for full scholarships because of their talent and potential, carry out service projects to develop their leadership skills and civic awareness. Most of the Curtain Call crew members were high school drama buffs.

“In high school, I did theatre religiously,” says Ritter, a senior zoology major. “I don’t have time to get involved in a university production, so I do it instead through service. This is my theatre outlet.”

Elyse Smith, a senior human nutrition major, participated in one University Theatre production before deciding the demands of rehearsals for three hours, six nights a week were too much to manage with her course load.

The highlight is watching the students progress as they take part in productions from sixth to eighth grade, she says. “In middle school it’s so important to build self-esteem. Seeing the changes in the kids is amazing.”

The young actors are inspired by their college mentors, and it shows in how well they take direction. “I asked them to learn the lines earlier this year, and they did it,” Ritter says with a hint of amazement in her voice. It was a wise decision, as she’s learned from experience.

Although last year’s production, “The King and I,” was a rousing success in the end, the dress rehearsal was a bust. “I went home and cried,” Smith says.

Despite the work that remains, music teacher Sarah Smith has confidence that when the opening notes sound for performances on Nov. 19 and 20, the cast and crew will be ready.

“At first, they’re petrified. Then the lights go on and we do it, and it’s a miracle,” she says, laughing. “They feel triumphant and come off stage screaming with excitement.”

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