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Musical theater 6th-graders embark on 'whole new world'

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  • More Young Achievers
  • Northwest School of the Arts’ musical theater program

    Musical theater is the school’s most popular program, with about 125 high school students and more than 70 in middle school, said teacher Bonnie Fraker.

    There are four musical theater teachers, and theater, dance and chorus teachers assist with middle school productions.

    Middle school students perform a fall musical and a spring Musical Theatre Revue at Northwest’s Charles LaBorde Theatre (known as the black box). The fall musical cast also participates in the Broadway Junior showcase at the Knight Theater in the spring.



Editor’s note: This is the first in a series following four sixth-grade musical theater students at Northwest School of the Arts.

The intro to “A Whole New World” began, and Yabi Gedewon, who stood nervously in front of the judges with hands folded in front of him, began to sing Aladdin’s part.

“I was intimidated by the other kids, they were really big,” said Yabi, a sixth-grader at Northwest School of the Arts. “I thought, ‘Why am I even doing this?’ I was shocked when I got the part.” (He scored the part of the villain Jafar for the November musical.)

At Northwest, many musical theater students recall their first auditions for the school’s fall musical with mortification. Northwest high school students who began there in middle school and the musical theater teachers agree that sixth grade is a formative time for Northwest students. It’s not only when they begin learning about musical theater, they said, but it’s also a year of self-discovery.

Meet four sixth-grade musical theater students who have just embarked on that journey: Yabi, Jada Jones, Sophie Teague and Max Orroth. They’re all 11 (Max turns 12 Thursday) and bubbling with excitement about musical theater.

A perfect fit

The four said they’ve dreamed of attending Northwest.

“I wanted to go here so badly because I’ve known about it since kindergarten,” Jada said.

“My friends couldn’t stop talking about it,” Yabi added.

Max said his decision to attend was reaffirmed last fall. “I went and saw ‘The Color Purple’ (at Northwest) last year and said, ‘This is amazing. I want to do opportunities like this.’”

Of the 1,004 students at Northwest, 72 are middle-schoolers in the musical theater program, and 22 are in the sixth grade.

This isn’t a school where the quarterback and cheer-leading captain are royalty. Instead, it’s the kids who get parts in school productions. And, as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ arts 6-12 magnet school, it’s a place where artistic kids feel at home.

“I was home-schooled before (sixth grade),” said Tessa Belongia, now a sophomore at Northwest. “I left elementary school because I didn’t fit in. When I got here, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m not the only one like this!’”

The first auditions

If you talk to a group of Northwest high-schoolers who’ve been there since middle school and ask them about their first auditions, they’ll utter cries of disgust and laughter. Some will clutch their heads in their hands.

Many said they thought they bombed their early middle school auditions.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it was so bad,’ ” sophomore Sarah Moore recalls. Sophomore Matt Mitchell said he forgot some words and asked to re-do his audition. Abby Corrigan, also a sophomore, brought a boombox to her first audition and didn’t know she was supposed to bring a binder with sheet music instead.

They got roles, and in the sixth grade, those parts carried enormous weight. Senior Eva Noblezada, who won a Blumey Award this spring for her lead role in Northwest’s “Footloose” production, still remembers her sixth-grade musical debut, which was one line as Teenage Girl #2 in “Cinderella”: “And the prince is giving a ball.”

From vaudeville to Gershwin

But before jumping into “Aladdin” auditions, this year’s sixth-graders began their musical theater education.

“In the sixth grade, we get a very mixed bag,” said teacher Bonnie Fraker, “… they are very unformed at that point.”

She said because she and her colleague, Matthew Hinson, have to focus so much on the musical aspect of theater, the sixth-graders simultaneously take a drama class.

They said the kids have to learn how to sing and be in character at the same time. “What they know at this point is standing in rows and singing,” Fraker said.

The four sixth-graders said they’ve learned a lot in just a few weeks about the history of musical theater – and they’ll enthusiastically tell you about vaudeville, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin with little prodding.

A whole new world

They auditioned for “Disney’s Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular,” a few weeks ago, with varying degrees of nerves, and all four got parts. Yabi will play Jafar, Sophie is Narrator 3, Jada is in the ensemble and Max will play Razoul, the captain of the guards.

They said trying to look at the posted call-back and cast lists was a chaotic experience. “You’re climbing over so many people,” Sophie said. “It looked like World War Z with all the zombies.”

Then there’s the thrill of working with big kids – seventh and eighth graders – and also hearing about how cute they are. “I felt like I was in kindergarten all over again,” Jada said.

Looking ahead

All four set goals for this year.

Jada said she wants to improve her range, singing and acting skills. She said it’s a lot of work being an ensemble member.

“When I sing, all my breath runs out. I have to work on singing and dancing at the same time, and doing flips and all this stuff,” she said.

Max said he wants to boost his dance skills – “I have two left feet” – and he’s already getting better in a school dance class. “It’s building up my muscles. Now I can do pirouettes barefoot.”

Yabi wants to stay on top of his grades. “I hope I can succeed academically because I care very much about my education,” he said.

Sophie wants to be a more flexible dancer. “My goal at the end of the year is to be able to do a split.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294
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