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Students realize dreams in performance

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Amanda Johnson fainted when she read the cast list for the Clayton County Fine Arts Magnet School's production of "High School Musical" in February.

She learned she had landed the leading role of "Gabriella."

Johnson, 15, and a freshman, said she has seen the Disney Channel's movie version of the musical "about 100 times," but did not expect to get a starring role, during her first year at the school.

The youth, whose dreams include eventually attending New York University to study theater, had actually hoped to just get a background role as a cheerleader when she auditioned for the play.

"I couldn't believe it when I saw my name on the list," Johnson said. "I actually passed out when I found out I got this role. I was shocked, but overjoyed at the same time ... I'm still shocked all of these months later."

Johnson, and 64 of her classmates from the two-year-old magnet school, which is based at Mt. Zion High School, have been rehearsing for the musical since February.

The play will be staged this Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m., on each night, and on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. All three performances will take place at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center, 2530 Mount Zion Parkway, in Jonesboro.

"It has been wonderful to see everything come together over the last few months," said Director Tanya Gruber. "It's always a challenge to put on a musical, because it's so demanding. But when you have amazing material and talent to work with, you can't help but produce an amazing product."

"High School Musical" was originally a television movie on the Disney Channel in 2006, and it was later adapted for the stage by Bryan Louiselle, according to theater licensing company, Music Theatre International.

Its story revolves around new student, Gabriella, and star basketball player, "Troy" (played by sophomore D'Andre Grayson), who decide to tryout for the school musical together, despite opposition from their classmates.

"It tells you not to conform to the status quo," said sophomore, Chela North, who plays "Sharpay," the drama club president. "The whole story points out how we segregate ourselves into these cliques, and we do what everybody expects us to do, because that's the way it's always been."

"The hard part about doing something like this is that, since people know the movie, they expect it to be the same thing, and there are a few things that are different," said sophomore, Anna Dixon, who plays "Taylor," a math aficionado who wants Gabriella to join the math club.

Gruber said the advantage of performing a musical, with which the students are familiar and excited about, is that it's easier to coax out of them the high level of energy called for in several of the production's musical numbers.

"This is no Rogers and Hammerstein musical," Gruber said. "This is something the kids like, because it's something they can relate to."

Some actors in the school's production, like sophomore, Tyrell Ruffin, said they jumped at the chance to be in the play because it represented the intersection of a path they dream of following in life, and a production they know and enjoy.

"If I hadn't been in this play, I would have cried," said Ruffin, who plays "Ryan," Sharpay's fraternal twin brother. "My dream is to be on the stage ... Remember my name - Tyrell Ruffin - because, someday, you'll be seeing it in lights."

While the students are excited about performing "High School Musical" now, Johnson said she will feel a different emotion when the final applause dies down after Saturday's performance.

"I'm going to be sad when it's over, because this is my life," Johnson said. "Most people dread coming to rehearsal, but I can't get across the street [to Mt. Zion High School] fast enough."

Advance tickets cost $5 and can be purchased at the Performing Arts Center, or from magnet school students and faculty members. Tickets will cost $7 on the day of the performance. Call (770) 473-2875, for more information.