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Pasco's River Ridge Middle School proves to be hotbed for stage

Keisha Abelgas was doing it up big, giving it her all as she bounced around the drama classroom at River Ridge Middle School singing My New Philosophy in a kid-like voice.

Up for grabs were the principal parts in the school's upcoming production of the 1967 musical comedy, You're a Good Man Charlie Brown and Keisha, 13, was one of about 40 kids who got a call back for a second audition. She had spent the weekend at home rehearsing for the part of Sally Brown — Charlie's sometimes bratty little sister who, in this scene, is a little put out about getting a "D."

It was a scene played over and over as, one after another, students were called to read back the same lines, sing the same song and prove to the director that they could own the role.

"I promise when you kids go to bed tonight you'll be hearing this song in your sleep," said drama teacher, Peter Nason, with a laugh, before moving on to the auditions for Schroeder.

Callbacks are a long and nerve-racking process — one that made Nason think he would have to triple-cast the show. Roughly 200 students had showed up for initial auditions, Nason said. "I have kids from all walks of life — football players, drama — kids who have never auditioned for anything before."

Paring down to the principal roles was a hard task — especially because his philosophy is to get as many kids on the stage as possible.

"I want them all to find the joy the love of theater that I have," he said. "That's what's it's all about — that's what teaching is all about."

And an abundance of hopeful talent isn't a bad problem to have.

At River Ridge Middle, there's plenty.

Under Nason's direction, students have put on some impressive shows. Last year's musical was Thoroughly Modern Millie. The year before that was Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, complete with 35 kids playing Oompa Loompas. Most recently, 40 students in the advanced drama classes presented The Outsiders, a serious drama based on S.E. Hinton's novel about two rival gangs. Next up is the more light-hearted fare of Charlie Brown and pals. All audience pleasers, no doubt, for parents, educators and the locals who show up to see the talent Pasco kids have to offer.

But the drama students from River Ridge Middle have also proven themselves in the broader realm — going head to head against students from other schools in district and state thespian festivals.

They have come away with some pretty fine honors.

In December, 71 drama students from River Ridge Middle competed in the 2011-12 Junior Thespian district 5 festival at Blake High School in downtown Tampa. The all-day event featured some 20 schools and about 700 performing arts students from Florida's West Coast all vying for ratings from good, excellent, superior to critics choice for acting in the categories of monologue, duet acting, pantomime and musical performance. River Ridge was the only public middle school from Pasco County to compete.

It's an experience that is not to be missed, said Nason, noting that his young thespians were going head to head against students from private and magnet schools specializing the arts.

"Acting in itself is great because it's something you learn by doing," he said. "But (at thespian festival) they also get to see the other people and the other schools and they realize they are on par with most of them or surpassing them. They can see how strong we are as a troupe and as a school."

River Ridge students brought home a slew of awards from the district festival, including 22 superior ratings. Standing out was Keisha's older brother, Red Abelgas, 14, who was named the Best in the District after wowing the judges and winning the Critic's Choice award for his monologue, Come to Church Camp; Learn to Kiss.

Certainly worthy of an encore, one that students provided at the Junior Thespian state competition held Feb. 9-11 in Melbourne. Once again, Mason had to pare down his entrants to the limited 10 acts. All earned superior and excellent ratings from the judges and there were a few more standouts.

Keisha and Red, who rehearsed together for hours at home, earned a Critic's Choice/Best in State award for duet acting for, Awkward Silence.

"We definitely love the competition," Red said. "It makes you step your game up."

Kayla Rodriguez, 14, also earned a Critic's Choice/Best in State for her monologue, Real Queen of Hearts, Ain't Even Pretty.

"It's great to be a part of this," she said. "I just like playing someone else."

Add to that, the touching performance of Austin Nash, 14, who earned a perfect score of 30 from all three judges for his monologue, Fat Pig.

"I guess I made the judges cry," said Austin, who has proved to be a natural, especially after playing bad boy Dallas Winston in The Outsiders. "I put my emotions into it. For me, I think acting is a good way to direct (your) emotions in a positive way."

Pasco's River Ridge Middle School proves to be hotbed for stage 02/28/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 28, 2012 4:56pm]

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