LUTZ — Rehearsal starts promptly at 8 a.m. in the music room at Denham Oaks Elementary, but no one seems to mind — not the kids who already pushed the risers to the back of the room to make space for a big ensemble number, and not the two teachers following along with the script as they encourage students to act like animals.
Always staying in character, they could be playing a llama, a dog, a short-sighted horse or one half of a "push me-pull you," a rather odd creature thought up by children's author Hugh Lofting when he first conjured The Story of Dr. Dolittle, about an eccentric veterinarian who can talk to the animals he treats.
"Don't be trying to look like a professional opera singer, which is silly because you are animals," Heather Croucher instructed ensemble members after one quick run-through. "You guys should be more excited. Give me something, show me something,"
This is work — fun work, but work nonetheless for cast members who have been showing up to school early three days a week to get down each of the nine scenes in the musical Dr. Dolittle Jr.
It's all for a one-night showing in May onstage at the Center for the Arts at Wesley Chapel.
"It's a big undertaking," said music teacher and co-director Amy Kinnard. "We put on a play and try to make it be like a play that people would pay to see at a regular theater — like a high school play."
Full-blown musical productions are more common in high schools that have drama programs. Not so much on the elementary level. But this is the seventh musical for Denham Oaks students, including productions of Cinderella, Willy Wonka, The Little Mermaid, Alice in Wonderland and Annie.
"We used to do traditional chorus things where the kids would just get up there and sing. We decided to do a musical starting with a kids' version of Cinderella," Croucher said, noting that the annual production ties in with required music and dance standards and helps boosts drama programs in the middle schools her students move on to.
The idea to do a musical with before-school rehearsals got strong support from principal Mardee Kay Powers as well as parents.
"The parents have to rearrange their schedules to get their kids here and they help with costumes and props," Kinnard said. "The dedication on our parents' part, the kids' part — without any part of the equation, it just doesn't happen."
Parent Monica Oberdorfer volunteers regularly and said she has no problem shuttling kids to school for early rehearsals, especially since seeing the benefits for her two daughters. Annika, 13, now a student at Charles Rushe Middle, was a shy child who seemed to blossom on stage. Daughter Sydney, 10, who has no problem speaking in public, has learned something about working with others and having to wait your turn.
"The kids get up excited to go to school," Oberdorfer said. "I was really impressed with the shows. You feel like the kids have worked really hard and they really come together to put on a show of this caliber."
And the kids have bought in.
Ninety students in grades 2 through 5 auditioned for and got roles in this year's production.
"In elementary school we don't have any extracurricular activities so I decided I wanted to be part of it," said Clayton Topdemir, 10. He has been in four productions including a principal part as Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid; an ensemble role in what he considers his favorite production of Annie; and as Tommy Stubbins in Dr. Dolittle.
"It doesn't matter what I am," he said. "I just like being on the stage performing."
"It's really fun," said Naomi Armstrong, 11, who was a wave in last year's offering of The Little Mermaid and plays a beagle in Dr. Dolittle. "It gives you a chance to be someone else and it's a good way to make friends."
One of the best parts, though, is being able to perform on a real stage.
"There's this spark that hits them when they get on stage," Croucher said. "They come alive and embody the character they are playing."
Michele Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.