Spellbound she sits, her mother on one side, her boyfriend on the other, as another young woman performs the role that will someday be hers.
Since she was little, Angie Guido has dreamed of standing on stage, playing the Puerto Rican girl who falls in love with the Polish boy named Tony.
She will be Maria in West Side Story.
Say it loud and there's music playing.
"That's me, Mom," she said.
Say it soft and it's almost like praying.
It won't be long, Angie thinks as she delights in a touring company production of West Side Story at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore. She and 20 members of the Drama Club from North County High School in Anne Arundel County attend the December show with a few parents. This is a prelude; there is expectant talk they will stage the same show for their spring musical.
Someday soon, Angie hopes, she will own the role that is rightfully hers. She has been a loyal drama club soldier, serving on committees, singing in the chorus when she yearned for a solo, watching lead roles slip away because she didn't look the part. But Maria is short, as she is, and dark, as she is, and more than that, Angie is a senior. This will be her last spring musical. Her last chance to shine.
But on the very next night, in that very same theater, another girl from North County High sits spellbound, her mother on one side, her best friend on the other.
She, too, is captivated by the Puerto Rican girl with the pretty voice.
She, too, wonders: What if that were me?
Two months later, in the middle of February, two dozen students gather in a dark and cavernous auditorium at North County High School to plan the spring musical.
You don't know them. Not yet.
Find a seat -- there, in the middle, close to the stage -- and watch.
You will meet two girls. One will have her dream come true, the other won't, and the experience will change them both.
You will meet a boy who can't sing but refuses to quit trying.
You will meet another boy, the leading man, who falls for one of the leading ladies. But so will someone else.
You will meet a girl who wants to be a star, then chooses a new destiny.
Come to the practices. Laugh at their goofy jokes. Encourage them when they flub their lines.
Soon you will know them.
And you will know this:
The high school musical is a rite of passage that will shape -- and reveal -- the adults they will soon be.
And nothing ever produced on stage can possibly match the drama of growing up.
As he walks to the drama club meeting, Wayne Shipley is worried. He doesn't have a cast chosen. He doesn't have scripts ordered. He doesn't even know what show he's directing -- and (( February is half gone. Opening night is less than eight weeks away.
The 900-seat auditorium roils with after-school mischief. A boy and girl snuggle. Two boys wage a pretend sword fight on stage. Other students animatedly relive the highlights of their just-completed one-act play festival.
"Hey, Ship!" a boy yells.
Mr. Shipley cuts an imposing figure as he stands before the drama club. At 53, he is tall, mostly bald, partial to blue jeans and cowboy boots. He has the strength and thickness of a former middle linebacker and two potent weapons: a gentle smile that calms the most paralyzing case of stage fright, and a terrorizing stare that automatically persuades teen-age boys this would be a smart time to shut up.
"We are behind schedule, which is obvious," he says before leaving. "Let's get with it, guys."
After 30 years of teaching, Mr. Shipley is retiring; this will be his last musical. The students, who adore him, know he has long dreamed of directing West Side Story but has always deemed it too challenging. This year, it's the students who doubt. The touring company's powerful performance at the Lyric last December left many intimidated. How can they possibly do the acting, singing and dancing demanded -- especially when they are a week behind?
A senior walks to the front. She has a radiant smile and a faint limp.
Presenting Starr Lucas, 18, the drama club president and the reason Mr. Shipley feels safe leaving two dozen teen-agers alone in a dark auditorium.
"Starr was named appropriately," he says.
Somehow this girl with the dark blond ponytail and ruby red lipstick became lost in a time warp. Starr is straight off the Berkeley campus, circa 1967: hip-hugging, bell-bottom blue jeans, tie-dyed shirts, a patch on her book bag that says WAR IS NOT HEALTHY FOR CHILDREN AND OTHER LIVING THINGS. She drives a blue Volkswagen Beetle with smiley face decals on the windows and says things like, "I'm waiting for a better generation."
A free spirit without the flightiness, Starr owns a crowded resume -- class president four straight years; member of the National Honor Society for two years; president of the Thespians, the drama honor society, for three years. She calls herself the Drama Queen.