NEW PORT RICHEY
A girl with no name — call her Every Girl — sits alone in her bedroom, refusing to read because it's just no fun.
Suddenly characters from her favorite movies appear, singing the songs she loves, explaining that their stories come from the books she rejects.
The Scarecrow from Oz in particular surprises the girl.
"You're in a book too?" she asks. "Are there other characters in books that aren't in movies?"
"I wouldn't know," Scarecrow respond. "I can't read."
He launches into If I Only Had a Brain, complete with loose-limbed dancing. But he stumbles over his lines.
"Sorry," says River Ridge High senior Alex Santiago, who's playing the role. "I haven't got it down."
"These little kids will eat you alive," growls River Ridge High musical theater teacher Diana Rogers. "They know all these songs, guys."
The "little kids" Rogers refers to are students at Northwest Elementary in Hudson, where this class of aspiring actors will perform their musical about the importance of reading, four times this week.
Usually, the musical theater class doesn't take its shows on the road.
But this year, Rogers decided to combine her teaching stage presence with the Pasco school district's emphasis on literacy. So she had her students pore through theatrical music to craft a production that emphasizes reading.
"They did really well pulling it together," Rogers said. "They had a good sense of what worked. I wouldn't have thought of a lot of this stuff."
Such as Princess Fiona from Shrek: The Musical singing about reading fairy tales. Or Belle from Beauty and the Beast, who's made fun of because of her love of books.
"They were much closer to the material," said Rogers, who performed on Broadway in Les Miserables during the 1990s and still acts in productions at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
Sophomore Emliss Niangne enjoyed scouring through the music that she grew up with.
"It was kind of a journey back to when I was a kid," said Emliss, who has the role of Princess Fiona. "We started singing from old shows we used to watch. It was nostalgia."
"We all put our input on the script," junior Rosemary Sandifer said. "You have to think what will keep (little kids) interested. That was a little difficult. But it's Disney."
Deciding what to cut taught the class about the gentle art of negotiation.
"We took out some (songs) and added things that work. I pretty much agree with everything," said freshman Joseph Farrow. "It turned out great."
Sophomore Kyle Peil, who has never performed on stage before, said he figured this type of presentation might have encouraged him to read more when he was younger.
"I was never a big reader," said Kyle, who shares the Scarecrow role with Alex. "If someone told me to read more, I probably would have laughed. (This show) is a fun way to bring the message."
With the songs selected and the roles cast, the class then set about practicing.
They begin class on risers, feet slightly apart, shoulders relaxed. They warm up their bodies, starting with their necks, moving to lips and tongue, swiveling hips. Then come the vocalizations, both musical notes and silly nonsense words aimed at improving pronunciation.
After that, the students head to a second room where there's a bed (for their Every Girl) to sit on, and a CD player for the music. They rehearse.
As they sing and dance and transit from scene to scene, Rogers shouts out her observations. She's not always kind.
"That sucked!" she exclaims after one scene. "Try it again!"
"No papers on Thursday!" she announces, frustrated with the number of students who were still reading lines with only a week before the big show. "Everybody off book or your grade will suffer!"
The students take her comments as intended.
"You get used to it," said Alex, who joined the class because he loves to sing.
He said the criticism is fair, as he's struggled to keep up with the class while also taking courses at Pasco-Hernando Community College.
"Ms. Rogers is really good at directing, and she's a really great teacher," he said, adding that the musical theater class has helped him become more outgoing than even his public speaking class did.
"I love this class," said Rosemary, one of the few in it who has performed a lead role in a school production. "It's my favorite thing, singing and music. It's my life. It's what I want to do."
Rogers said she aims to give any student who wants it the chance to perform, either in classes like this or in school shows, because you never know where the next talent will emerge.
"It's why I always have a huge cast when I have a high school play," she said. "We're kind of the Glee. I love to give them the opportunity."
And with this show, she added, "Not only is it a great opportunity for them, it will hopefully inspire kids to read."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.