Students prepare for an adventure in 'Wonderland'

There's nothing unusual about most early mornings at Weddington Hills Elementary School. About an hour before the first bell even rings, while the halls are still dim, a bleary-eyed teacher or two will press through the main doors and toward their classrooms to get an early start on the day. A custodian, the hall all to himself, will roll his empty trash can down the middle, stopping occasionally to sweep what was missed the day before.

But on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the gymnasium at Weddington Hills holds an uncharacteristic activity. Instead of echoes from dribbling balls and high-pitched squeaking from rubber soles, a single female voice can be heard belting out fragments of songs.

Sometimes the voice is solo. Other times it's joined by a chorus of children. But rarely does the song start at the beginning and make it all the way to the end.

Since September, 65 of the school's students have given up a little extra pillow time to come to early morning rehearsals of Alice in Wonderland, Jr. the Musical. They line the walls around the entire gym, singing, dancing and acting. The blue mats and basketball hoops on the multi-colored floor disappear.

For an hour, they aren't elementary school children, but a host of characters. Among them, a white rabbit, a mad hatter, and dozens of persnickety singing flowers who suspect the main character, Alice, is a weed.

It's a dedication their music teacher, Karen Scalf, appreciates. She knows rising early is just a small portion of it.

"It's a big play, a 90-page play that they had to know and be held accountable for," said Scalf, a six-year music teacher. "They had to study, and memorize, and learn this in addition to their homework."

This is Scalf's first year teaching at Weddington Hills, and the first play of this magnitude administrators have OK'ed, she said. They approved it, in part, she believes, because of the educational aspects a play like this holds.

The script's tongue-twisting lines can't help but strengthen the casts' reading fluency.

In the gym, Scalf runs the students through two such tricky lines, her quick-snapping fingers holding the dizzying pace: "We ought to throw a party for a very special party. I hate to be specific but our timing is terrific."

"Some of these kids with the speaking parts had trouble, or were stumbling over what they were reading," she said. "You have to read it over and over and get it smooth so that you can speak it and present it."

Learning lines has been the trickiest part of her role as the White Rabbit, said Emily Hayes, a fifth grader. "I really have to know my lines, because they get confusing," she said. "They change around a lot."

Scalf is not worried. Their dedication during the last five months should ease any uncertainty of getting lines down. "They definitely can pull it off," she said. "They've really come far."