When Northside High junior Kaylee Richard croons the words to “If I Were A Bell” from the Tony Award-winning musical “Guys and Dolls,” there’s not a face without a smile in the rehearsal room as her character, Save-a-Soul Mission crusader Sarah Brown, moons over gambler Sky Masterson.
The joy of love — or, “uh, chemistry” — the song shines through on Richard’s face — albeit through a newfound affinity for Cuban “milkshakes” that helped the uptight missionary discover love.
Since January, Richard and 38 other advanced choir students at Northside have worked to bring a bit of Broadway to Lafayette as part of a partnership with Christian Youth Theater — Lafayette, a children’s theater group.
CYT received a $10,000 grant from the Junior League of Lafayette to launch an in-school theater program at Northside High School and produce a musical. As part of the grant, CYT staff, Northside High music teachers and community members taught a 12-week workshop that culminates with the staged production of “Guys and Dolls Jr.” at the end of March. Students bring the iconic Broadway characters of Sky, Sarah, Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide to the N.P. Moss auditorium March 27-28. The performances are free and open to the public.
CYT staff has worked with the students on their acting skills in teacher Sarah Clavelle’s advanced choir class and rehearse with the students at least three days a week.
“It’s been amazing to see them come out of their comfort zone,” said Maria Williams, CYT staff member and show director. “It’s also been amazing helping them find that hidden talent and watching them blossom.”
The experience of acting has been a surprising one for Richard, who said she used to think acting was easy.
“It’s very hard, but if you put in the time and work, it comes out,” Richard said.
Kaiser Decuir, 17, a junior who plays the role of gambler Sky Masterson, transferred to Northside High after being in the performing arts academy at Lafayette High. He relishes the chance to perform onstage.
“Probably the most difficult thing is getting to know the role,” he said. “This is the first year I have a big scene. It’s getting over that pressure.”
The other love story in the musical belongs to Miss Adelaide, played by Vanye Adams, and Nathan Detroit, played by Braxton Cormier, whose endless engagement has spanned 14 years.
Cormier and Adams are both 17-year-old juniors.
“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” Adams said before rehearsals Friday. “I never thought I’d get a major part in something like this. The most challenging part has been getting the voice down right and the part down.”
Cormier said the experience has been a fun yet difficult one.
“It’s been challenging bearing with it all — keeping up with everything that’s going on. It’s really fun to do,” he said.
Clavelle said she took her students to see CYT productions of “Tarzan” and “Les Misérables” and they left each show with the same question: “Why can’t we do something like that?”
Money — and the time it would take to raise funds — was a major obstacle.
Clavelle got in touch with CYT, which offers scholarships to participate in its programs. But often transportation remains an obstacle for students, said Carol Mills, CYT-Lafayette artistic director and Northside project grant director. The company started an after-school program for elementary school students and decided to expand that effort through a program at a high school that could be offered during the school day, thus eliminating transportation problems or limited after-school time due to part-time jobs or other after-school responsibilities, Mills said.
“It’s one way to bring a theater program into schools that can’t afford a drama teacher or program,” she said.
CYT started the grant process through Junior League of Lafayette. Auditions were held in December, and students started learning their roles in January.
Northside High band director Alex Jones also joins the students, assisting during his planning period. Natalie Myers works on choreography, and Heather Holland is co-director.
“The kids have been rehearsing and learning it. They don’t know how good they are yet,” said Clavelle, who also is the production’s musical director. “This is an amazing opportunity for them to be onstage and put them to the test.”
Javonta Melancon, 16, a sophomore, plays one of the gamblers. His favorite scene is the opening sequence when the cast is milling around on stage, interacting with one another. The song-and-dance numbers are fun, but the dance part has been a challenge, Melancon said.
“Some people don’t have rhythm — like me,” Melancon said with a smile. “It just takes practice.”
His confidence has grown in the past few weeks, and his enjoyment in learning the numbers helped.
“It got fun,” he said. “Everybody’s silly and makes it more comfortable.”
Meanwhile, the students also are preparing for an all-district choral competition in two weeks.
Clavelle said she’s seen how her students have grown through the new experience of preparing for a production.
“There are life skills that they’re learning that translate to what they’ll be expected to do in the real world,” she said. “Practice without someone telling you. Taking constructive criticism. Intrinsic motivation. You’re not going to always have a cheerleader cheering you on.”
Mills said students have expressed in their own ways that they’ve learned the lessons Clavelle hoped they would.
“We’re working on their bios for the program, and we ask them who they want to dedicate their performance to,” Mills said.
Most of the students say Clavelle or their parents.
The reasons vary but carry the same sentiment.
“Because (she) pushes me. She believes in me. She helps me get out of my comfort zone,” Mills said. “There’s a mental understanding of those lessons.”
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.