Spring musicals are blooming on high school stages across South Jersey, from Singin' in the Rain at West Deptford to Burlington Township's Carousel and Haddon Township's Grease.
Then there's Cherry Hill East, where 93 performers, 37 musicians, 30 technicians, 40 volunteers, a budget of nearly $30,000, and decades of tradition are involved in a production of Aida.
Not the Verdi opera, mind you, but a show arguably as ambitious: the Elton John-Tim Rice smash, which won four Tony awards and made Heather Headley a star.
East's Aida opened Friday, with performances Sunday and next weekend.
"We want people to leave saying, 'I can't believe what I just saw,' " director Tom Weaver says.
Telling the tale of star-crossed lovers through pop-rock makes for "a cool, upbeat, lightning-in-a-bottle show," he adds.
Weaver, 60, has run the drama program and spring musicals since the 2008 retirement of his predecessor, Robert Nation, who had the job for 38 years. Nation and his colleagues - Weaver included - helped build the school's theater program into a powerhouse that has launched a number of graduates into successful theater careers.
Consider: East's production of Les Miserables was named best musical in the state by the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2003; that production starred Cristin Milioti, who has worked on Broadway (Once) and now plays the mother in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother.
Last week, Weaver's right arm was in a sling, having been broken in a fall on his icy Cherry Hill driveway. The terrible weather also has disrupted rehearsals, and the cast has been hit by a plague of colds. But the show must go on.
"There's a lot of singing, and it's difficult music," vocal director Cindy Persichetti, of Mount Laurel, explains. "The biggest challenge is to get them to sing correctly - with a healthy Broadway voice."
The corridors around the 1,100-seat auditorium are swarming with kids in costume and makeup. They're running lines, doing scales, warming up; I could be on the set of Glee, except this is better.
"It's a dream come true," says Chelsea Campbell, who will alternate with fellow senior Elisabeth Siegelin the role of Aida. "I grew up singing the soundtrack."
Campbell waits in the costume shop, where volunteer Jeanmarie Maresh, whose daughter, Alexandra, is in the crew, is touching up a theatrically ragged dress for a scene with an enslaved Aida in chains.
With 2,100 students, East often double-casts roles in its spring musicals. This gives more students a chance to learn the production process: Students build sets, operate the sound board, and do essential backstage tasks such as "quick-changing" costumes for actors.
"The experience is invaluable," Maresh notes, as a student cuts a pattern under the watchful eye of "costume lady" Noel Davis. She works full time as a nurse at Yale School in Cherry Hill and loves the creativity of building a costume - one inspiration (or invention) at a time.
"The challenge is to not have it look like a high school musical," says Sandi Makofsky, a veteran choreographer and codirector.
No worries: The costumes and sets are clever and impressive, but not slick. There's a can-do, youthful spirit evident in the way the show looks, feels, and sounds.
"We've got a full symphony orchestra, all students," says conductor Tim Kelleher, who's been an East faculty member for 16 years.
Despite its size, the orchestra doesn't have a pit; the musicians are assembled below the lip of the stage, in front of the audience. The arrangement is a challenge, and so are the auditorium's poor acoustics, but these kids rise to the occasion.
"It's total work, but it's worth it," trumpeter Mason Kramer, 18, says, as a keyboardist riffs on the theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas.
In the green room, Makofsky and Weaver give the cast last-minute notes.
"Only the people from stage right should be waiting for the blackout," Makofsky says.
"We need to see you guys at 100 percent, not 90 percent," Weaver says. "You can't be up there mailing it in.
"So take a deep breath. Break a leg.
"Places in one minute."