As a Megabus rattled through the Lincoln Tunnel, a surprising fact passed among the 11 Philadelphia high school students occupying the back rows: They were under water.
"No, we're not," several said in disbelief, turning to their classmates to ascertain that they were, indeed, traveling beneath the Hudson River. Convinced, one student declared, "I'm about to tweet it!"- before finding out that there was no cellphone service below ground.
It was the first surprise on a day full of new experiences for the 11 travelers from El Centro de Estudiantes, a school for students who have dropped out or been kicked out of Philadelphia public schools. On a whirlwind trip Wednesday, they took in the chaos of Manhattan traffic, the dizzying color of Times Square, and their first Broadway show.
A board member of the Hamilton Family Foundation offered to pay for the field trip for the nine young women and two young men after the local charity's executive director, Nancy Brent Wingo, watched the group of El Centro students rehearsing a play titled Life Unmasked that the students had written and performed at the Wilma Theater.
On the night of their performance this month, the students learned about their surprising reward for their hard work: the trip to Broadway.
Many of them had never been to New York, and none had seen a professional show there.
"I feel like a star. I'm going to get to go to New York and meet the actors," said Shantaya Willis, 18.
As the bus pulled into the city, Willis and Bianca Halton, 18, blasted the Jay-Z song "Empire State of Mind" from one of their cellphones, as Eli Hicks, 20, a dancer, and El Centro counselor Zeelyna Wise, one of three chaperones on the trip, debated over lyrics.
Stepping into the "concrete jungle where dreams are made of," as they agreed the song's chorus said, the students marveled at the congestion and commotion.
"This is New York, huh?" asked Shanna Patterson, 18, while her classmates eagerly took photographs. "It's hot, it's crowded, and too noisy."
Soon they were inside the Brooks Atkinson Theatre for a matinee performance of Peter and the Starcatcher, a prequel to the Peter Pan story.
Some of the students were critical of the show. "It was OK. It didn't really keep my interest," Summer Holler, 16, said. "Some of the jokes weren't exactly funny," Patterson said, though she was impressed by the sound effects and scenery.
But Anne Holmes, the education director at the Wilma who organized the excursion, was pleased. "They never checked out. Nobody fell asleep. Nobody was on their phones," she said. "They laughed at all the things I hoped they would laugh at."
Holmes' brother Rick, an actor who appears in the show, took the students on a backstage tour after the performance, where they eagerly asked Christian Borle, who recently won a Tony Award for his role and whom the students recognized from TV's Smash, to autograph their playbills.
"I think it's a fantastic show to see when you're new to theater," Rick Holmes said outside the building. "It's a love letter to making theater. It's about imagination. It goes to the heart of what we all sort of love about making art or theater - it's about what's between our ears."
Anne Holmes said the students' exposure to theater has helped them learn to cooperate with each other. "It relies on thriving in a group environment, where many of these students have struggled in the past."
Wise said she was moved that all 11 cast members showed up for the trip - a testament to their enthusiasm that she did not expect.
"More experiences like this," Wise said, "and I believe with every fiber of my being that you will see students develop more and more social skills and not come off as just upset at the world, or angry."
Wingo added, "To give them experiences that they never thought they could have and they never envisioned for themselves says that someone believes in them and someone is behind them and wants them to do well, and sometimes that's what kids need in order to do well."
On the return to Philadelphia, some of the students asked about the cost of a Megabus ticket, musing that they might be able to visit New York again on their own.
Others pondered the question of what they would become if they were touched by "starstuff," the mythical substance described in the play that transforms people into whatever they want to be. For Marie Garcia, 18, the answer was that she would be a famous actress like the performers she had just seen.
Willis, who plans to pursue a degree in theater next year at Community College of Philadelphia, said Borle's comedic repetition of "Oh my God" in a scene in Peter and the Starcatcher reminded her of her own recurring funny refrain of "I don't care" in the play that she and her classmates wrote. "I can see how I want to be," she said, "be more professional and don't laugh."
But Klarisa Rosado, 17, cautioned her classmates to avoid being starstruck.
"You can take them as a role model," she said. "I don't think you should copy them. I think you should always be yourself."
Contact Julie Zauzmer
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