On March 24, the thespians inside the choir classroom at Jamestown High School were fired up.
It was opening night of the spring musical "Footloose," and the students clad in '80s garb had 15 minutes to kill before the curtain call. They had finished singing their scales, doing their makeup and stretching.
When Director J. Harvey Stone and Vocal Director Laurel Christensen stepped out, the room was momentarily void of adults. That is when the pre-play ritual began.
The students began singing in low voices.
A Viking-like song about pillaging villages filled the room. Each verse increased in volume before being punctuated by the three-word chorus: "Eat the babies!"
Soon every student — the girls in their leg warmers and pigtails, the boys in their choir robes and the stage hands clad in all black — was jumping up and down in unison, screaming the dirge.
In the auditorium, the chatter of the audience drowned out the chant from across the hall.
The students would soon take the stage, some of them for the first time, to sing and dance and act in front of their parents and classmates. A little firing up was necessary.
A few minutes after the chant ended, the curtain rose and the Williamsburg-James City County Spring musical season was officially underway.
This year's musical season was marked by recognition for the school district as one of the "Best Communities for Musical Education." W-JCC received the distinction in March from the National Association of Music Merchants, who recognized 476 of the nation's 13,515 school districts.
A week after Jamestown's opening night, girls in silver sequin dresses and boys in leprechaun-like green overcoats were arranging themselves on the stage at Lafayette High School. It was the last rehearsal for "The Wizard of Oz" before Spring Break, and Choreographer Arianna Heck, 37, was determined to keep the students focused.
"I'm ready to be impressed by 'Merry Old Land,'" Heck called out. "Are you ready to impress me?"
Soon the students were tap dancing across the stage, throwing themselves into "Ha-ha-ha's" and "Ho-ho-ho's." Dorothy, the Lion, the Tinman and the Scarecrow were lifted onto their cast mates' shoulders.
"We get up at twelve and start to work at one. Take an hour for lunch and then at two we're done," sang the Ozians.
The philosophy governing life in Oz is not the same one governing life at musical practice at Lafayette.
"Repetition and rehearsal is the key. We just put the work in and have the dedication that is needed," Director Suzan McCorry said.
McCorry, who is in her 17th year in the district, sat at a table in the orchestra pit. She was flanked by Heck, who has been her choreographer for 20 years, and Eric Stone, a retired firefighter who silenced some chatty Winkies (the Wicked Witch's guards) backstage without even getting up.
The longtime associates are crucial to controlling all the moving parts of a 97-student-strong production.
But, McCorry said, so is knowing when to let go of that control.
"In the past, I was more like, 'Here is how you do it,'" she said. "Now I like to say I am very organic in my directing. I want them to be a part of the process. The process is more important than the final product. If they understand the process, the product will be excellent."
This year's Lafayette musical presents a unique challenge: it takes place after spring break. The school pushed it back to avoid the risk of having to cancel rehearsals just before the play due to snow days.
McCorry said she was concerned about the 10-day break. Students would be away from the play for a week, and she worried about them forgetting the countless details they had practiced for months.
A week and a half later, the Lafayette students returned from spring break, and the actors were rusty.
There was confusion as to when the Scarecrow catches fire, Toto did not come when called and, after 10 days off, the Winkies could not march in unison.
"Do it again. No excuses," McCorry called out to the Winkies. "Our eyes are going to go to the person that is doing it wrong. Get in sync."
McCorry called out her orders while standing over the cell phone table.
Students names fill a taped-off grid on a white folding table. At the beginning of daily rehearsal, each student must place their cell phone by their name tag on the table, which remains under McCorry's watchful eye. At a glance she can see who is absent, and she has developed a conflict-free way to enforce her no-cell-phones rule.
"I want the students to stay in character, even if they are sitting in the wings waiting for their turn to go onstage. None of the characters in the 'Wizard of Oz' would have used a cell phone, so I don't want the kids doing it either," she explained.
McCorry needs all the tricks she can use. Her cast includes kindergartners being thrown in the air by high school students, a 4-year-old Shih Tzu named Jobo and a 48-year-old varsity football coach.
Andy Linn, the varsity football coach, will perform in his fourth musical this year.
"I don't know any other coaches who have done this. I am sure I will receive several texts explaining how my manhood card has been revoked," said the coach, who will play the role of Professor Marvel and the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz.
"Ms. McCorry has suckered me into it the last three or four years," Linn said.
While McCorry is able to persuade a winning football coach to sing and dance with the theater kids, she did not have as much luck transforming Jobo.
Jobo – the Shih Tzu who plays Toto – is perfect for the role. He loves being carried in a basket, and his real name rhymes with his character's name. However, the real Toto is darker than Jobo.
But when his owner tried to dye Jobo black so he would look more like Toto in the movie, it backfired.
"He turned Emerald City Green," said McCorry with a laugh. "So I said it wasn't necessary."
While Lafayette's production team has decades of experience, Justin Sease — Warhill's director of "Beauty and the Beast" — is making his debut as a high school director.
After the final rehearsal before spring break, Sease, 32, sat on the stage giving his actors notes on their performance. After each compliment, the group murmured "Thank you" and snapped their thumbs appreciatively.
Sease may be a rookie director, but he has experience in the New York City spotlight where he worked as an actor for seven years. He said it was mostly regional theater and student films, but the thespians under his direction at Warhill appreciate a director who has been on the stage so recently.
"It is a special, special opportunity to have someone who has acted professionally. You usually don't get that experience until college," said Jacob Gibbons, 18. "It's freaking gnarly."
On the first day back at rehearsal after spring break, the students ran through "Gaston." The song is an ode to the insecurity of the brawny antagonist which ended with Collins Reagan as Gaston flexing his muscles for a line of adoring females who assure him "there's no one as burly and brawny."
Carley Calfee, 15, plays the role of LeFou, who is Gaston's sidekick. During the Gaston number, Reagan drags Calfee around on the stage, at one point standing with his foot on her back.
The physicality of the part does not faze Calfee, who embraced the role of the scrawny whipping boy for Gaston.
"I love the role. I can be as big as I want," she said. "I've been told to have no inhibitions."
Calfee was quick to mention the other things she loves about theater: the pre-rehearsal warmups, the "roses and thorns" critique sessions and the Warhill thespians, which she described as a "tight-knit community."
As Reagan was tossing Calfee around, student choreographer Richard Foster looked on critically. Sease said Foster choreographed the entire production. Sease would give him basic blocking instructions as to where the main characters needed to be, but beyond that Foster had free reign.
He uploaded videos of the dances to a file sharing network so the performers could practice at home during spring break. After the run-through, Foster said he was pleased with his classmates' performance.
"Overall I'm really, really happy," he said. "I can't think of another word."
Sease said Foster's commitment is just one example of how impressed he has been with the students' work ethic.
"I came in honestly just thinking I am going to have fun with them. But they are so serious that it's not enough not to approach this with a serious work ethic," Sease said. "I had to start treating them like professionals."
Sease said he was impressed by the collaboration of the students at Warhill. As a new director, he said he leans heavily on the student leaders. In addition to the choreography, "Beauty and the Beast" has students in charge of the lighting, the set design and the costumes.
He is quick to listen to the suggestions of students in the play.
"When you are this young and you have any sort of idea, I don't want to squelch them," he said. "If you operate out of fear, the creativity goes out the door."
"Footloose" opened with an ensemble-encompassing number.
Students playing multiple roles danced their way off the stage and darted into the hallway behind the stage to quickly change costumes. Most were changing from their Chicago dance club costumes to the more conservative duds worn by residents of Bomont, where the play takes place.
The cheering parents and teachers in the crowd were to credit for some of the acting performances. Two students said they channeled their real-life authority figures into their "Footloose" characters.
Hunter Perry, 15, who played Coach Dunbar, said getting into character became easier when he imagined becoming the school's junior varsity linemen coach Ronnel Brown.
Rylee Worstell, 16, played Ethel McCormack, the mother to the protagonist. "I kind of feel like I am my own mom," she said. "I take the things she does and try to do them on stage."
And several students said the message of the play resonated with them.
"'Footloose' is kind of about how there are rules and law, but at a certain point where law becomes a prison sentence," said Carly Lloyd, 17. "'Footloose' shows that you can break free of the chains that bind you. This isn't just a fun musical, it has a message."
Over the next two days, the students at Jamestown performed for nearly 1,700 spectators, and School Board officials were abuzz about the performance.
"The students knocked it out of the ballpark," said Board member Julie Hummell at the April 12 School Board work session. "A high school spring musical is one of the most collaborative efforts a high school can undertake."
Musicals in WJCC
•Jamestown High School performed "Footloose" on March 24, 25 and 26.
•Lafayette High School will perform "The Wizard of Oz" on April 21, 22 and 23. For tickets call 565-4244; reserved seating available
•Warhill High School will perform "Beauty and the Beast" May 12, 13 and 14. For tickets call 565-9100; reserved seating available.