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'High School Musical'
Cast members perform a number from "Disney's High School Musical" at the North Shore Music Theatre. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

'High' anxiety

Auditioning for the stage version of a hit TV musical keeps teens on their toes

BEVERLY -- The complicated, athletic dance routine they just learned was tough enough, but when nearly 60 teenage boys are asked to pretend to do a basketball layup, many of them seem so wiped out they can barely fake dribbling the ball, let alone go for a basket. Others look like they've never played basketball before. But Ryan Cameron lopes across the room easily and takes his shot. He says after getting the dance steps down, doing a layup was a relief.

Cameron is one of an astonishing 232 teenagers who've come to a mammoth audition at North Shore Music Theatre's education building. They're all trying out for the company's stage version of Disney's hit TV movie "High School Musical" -- the New England premiere of the show, which starts previews on Tuesday.

Cameron, a 17-year-old athlete from Needham, drove up to the audition with a few friends. "I think he just went for a lark," says his mom, Sandy Cameron, afterward. "He's never auditioned for anything up here before. He just got his license, and I think it was the first time he'd driven on the highway. He's a diver with his high school team, and he was a state finalist, but he's ready to skip the end-of-the-year competition to be in this show."

Wiry and articulate with shaggy dark hair, Cameron says he just wanted to see what it was all about. "This is what real professional auditions are like," he says, marveling. He's done school plays and Wellesley Summer Theatre before. "It's a great opportunity," he says, "but kind of intimidating."

A jock who auditions for a show? Sounds like the story of "Disney's High School Musical" itself, which follows Troy and Gabriella, two teens who've been labeled as members of certain groups -- Gabriella hangs with the "smart" kids and Troy is a star athlete, the co-captain of the basketball team. But when they try out for the school musical, it changes everyone's idea of who belongs in which crowd. "High School Musical" spawned the No. 1 best-selling CD of 2006, and the show, filled with such catchy numbers as "Get'cha Head in the Game" and the anthemic "We're All in This Together" and "Bop to the Top," celebrates doing your best, wherever your passion leads.

The hundreds of teens who headed to North Shore for the auditions in March are passionate about their desire to perform in this show. North Shore often holds auditions for young people in its musicals, but this is the first time so many roles -- 12 of the 37 parts -- have been set aside for non-Equity performers.

"I think you have to open this show up to the teens in the community," says director Barry Ivan, who was recently named the theater's new artistic director and executive producer. "This show speaks to them. It's the 'Grease' for this generation, and it engages adults as well as kids with its message of expressing yourself and following your dream."

Something special
In a room down the hall from the auditions, a group of teenage girls has gathered, some weeping, some hugging their moms. "The dance routine was brutal," one girl says, wiping tears off her cheeks.

As the boys wait their turn, 16-year-old Alex DeLeo is trying not to be nervous. "I'm such a huge fan of this show," says DeLeo, a compact blond with an athletic build from North Reading. "I can't tell you how many times I've watched the movie, and I've got the T-shirt and a notebook and the DVD game. To be part of the ensemble in this cast, that would be amazing."

When it's the boys' turn to run through the dance combination with Christopher Saunders, assistant choreographer for the production, DeLeo confidently moves to the front. A trained dancer, he seems to know all the moves and effortlessly gives them a muscular spin. He says he was in a production of "The Wizard of Oz" at North Shore when he was young, but the auditions were nothing like this.

Kelly DeLeo, Alex's mom, says he's crazy about dance. "He has one older sister and an older brother, and I always dragged Alex to his sister's dance class where he'd watch and wait. He'd always ask, 'When am I going to start dancing?' He played hockey and took karate, but when the season was over or there was a break, he'd always ask if he could take dance lessons then."

Only a few of the boys and several girls are asked to return after the dance routine to sing, and even fewer are asked back again to read from the script. When DeLeo is among them, he looks stunned. "They asked me to read Ryan," he says afterward -- a character who, with his sister Sharpay, always gets leads in the school plays until Troy and Gabriella come along. "It's the perfect part for me," DeLeo exclaims, trying to breathe normally. "I knew exactly where the scene was and what the character was thinking, but it was still really hard."

Ashley Rose McCormack, 16, is a clear standout in the dance audition, picking up the steps with ease and adding lots of spirit and personality. When asked if she can do any acrobatics, she wows everyone with a series of elegant handsprings and flips. But when called back to sing, the Winthrop resident is thrown off. She hasn't brought the 16 bars of sheet music most of the teens have with them in a professional-looking binder. In fact, she hasn't prepared any music at all.

"I'm really just a dancer," she says. "I thought I could audition just to be in the dancing chorus." But Ivan is clearly impressed with her performance and sends her to the piano. She runs through a series of scales in a clear, thin soprano and then gamely sings "Happy Birthday."

Ivan says he's looking for something special in these teens. "Obviously, they don't have the experience of the professionals they'll be sharing the stage with," Ivan says, "but this crowd is very talented. Of course the show has to soar vocally, but it also has to have enormous energy. I can't afford to let the audience feel like they'd rather be home watching the DVD. So I look for something in the person that shows they are grounded and self-confident. The energy will come from that."

Remembering to breathe
It's mid-June, and the second day of rehearsal for the 12 teens who've made the cut. Cameron, DeLeo, and McCormack are here, along with such young veterans as Presilah M. Nunez, 17, of Lynn, and Nick Christopher, 16, of Winchester, who starred in North Shore's "Aida: School Edition" two years ago.

As they all finish a vocal rehearsal and step outside for a break, the mood is remarkably relaxed, considering they have less than three weeks until opening night.

"We get two rehearsals before the rest of the company arrives from New York," says Samantha Goober, 14, of Burlington. "We've already learned three songs, done costume fittings, some choreography, and our entrances for the opening number. Rehearsing is hard work, but lots of fun."

Although she's one of the youngest members of the ensemble, Goober has a resume many professionals would envy. She's been performing since she was 6, with roles in "Gypsy" at the Publick Theatre, "A Little Princess" at Wheelock Family Theatre, and "Ragtime" and "A Christmas Carol" at NSMT. She's done commercials and joined the Screen Actors Guild at age 11 -- and of course, she has her own website.

But Goober hardly plays the diva. A poised eighth grader who's juggling her final days of school with rehearsals, she says her dad guilts her into doing chores by reminding her he's giving her a ride to the theater later in the day. "I appreciate what my family does," she says. "This summer they changed our vacation so that I could be in this."

Goober's attitude makes it easy for the family to make the sacrifices they have to, says Amy Goober, Samantha's mom. "I have two other children," she says, "and I just started a business of my own, but we felt it was an honor for her to be cast. [North Shore's staff] has been very supportive and available, and that makes a big difference. We've actually been very careful about what she auditions for. We need to know what the commitment is before she takes it on because we all get involved."

In the rehearsal room, the teens get ready to stage their first number with the show's stars, David Nathan Perlow (Troy) and Addi McDaniel (Gabriella).

"I think we're more nervous than they are," says Perlow, whose dad was his basketball coach growing up outside New York City. "We've already heard them singing, and they're phenomenal."

But the teens look anxious as they go to their positions, try to think in terms of the in-the-round stage, and remember their moves and the lyrics. It's the opening number, "The Wildcat Cheer," which sets the lighthearted tone of the show as the characters catch up with friends after the holidays and get ready for a big game.

As Ivan makes adjustments and corrections, the kids watch their feet and turn to one another for help.

"Putting it all together is tricky," says Goober during a break. "We've learned each piece separately, but now we have to sing, dance, remember the lyrics and where you're supposed to be."

"And breathe," one of her fellow actors says. "Oh yeah, that too," says Goober.

McCormack says she's working extra hard on her singing. "The music director shouts out an A, and I don't have a clue," she confides. "My younger sister is a singer, so she's been working with me. Every once in a while, it's good to have a little sister."

The teens take swigs of water and gather to go over the steps in the hallway. "This isn't the kind of show where you sit around and wait until they call you for your scene," says Goober. "There's so much to do and not a lot of time, and we want to look as good as the professionals."

But the hard work is worth it, they all agree.

"It's an amazing opportunity to work in a professional environment," says Cameron. "It's exciting to know expectations are high."