The Glenelg High School Drama Club's production of "Aladdin" features many of the story's classic moments, from a magical flying carpet ride to a boisterous genie and a street rascal named Aladdin, who wishes to become a prince to win the independent Princess Jasmine's heart.
What gives the production even more heart is the cast of 40 students who have been working together once a week since October to bring it to stage. Starring students with special needs along with their peers, the production brings everyone together with the same goal — to put on a show.
"I came here because I heard this program was happening," said Margaret Condon, Glenelg's speech therapist since 2011. "This school embraced it and made it as great as it is."
The idea to host a production that included students with special needs came to the county around 2009, Condon said, when graduate students from Loyola's speech and language department interned in the high schools and helped with the plays to promote social and pragmatic learning skills. While other high schools have had productions, Glenelg has kept the program going though there are no longer interns from Loyola.
"The theater department embraced it. The life skills teachers embraced it," Condon said. "Look at what it has accomplished."
Condon and Karly Robinson, a life skills teacher at Glenelg, rattled off a list of accomplishments the cast members — who have various degrees of either physical or intellectual needs — had accomplished, from learning to project their voices and learning choreography to one cast member overcoming physical limitations to sing and another performer, who is a non-reader, memorizing all her lines (all dialogue is projected on the walls of the theater for both the actors and audience to see).
Most important, both Condon and Robinson agreed, the actors with special needs were creating friendships with their peers.
"They're building friendships," Robinson said. "They have a common goal everyone is going towards in a safe environment that allows them to connect."
"A lot of these guys have nothing to talk about with [each other], now they do," Condon said.
Typically, for every student with a need, there are two peer students helping them on stage. Throughout the rehearsals, Kassidy Sharp, the director, switched peers around so everyone could feel comfortable working with each other and know how to help.
"If you see these kids in October, the peer students are nervous and unsure," said Ellie Whittenberger, the pianist, who has participated in numerous special needs productions throughout the county. "Where they go from that first month of rehearsals, it's just great ... it goes away. Glenelg definitely has the peer thing going."
"This is my third year doing this," said Matthew Hultee, a 17-year-old junior peer who also acts as narrator. "I've worked with some of these kids before. I love it."
As Glenelg's theater teacher, Sharp is responsible for producing six shows throughout the school year. Since rehearsals for "Aladdin" began in October, the show typically overlaps both the school's fall and spring productions.
"I wear many different hats," Sharp said. "This show may not be as technical, but honestly, it is just as rewarding."
While Condon helps students with their "big show mouth movements" to help slow their lines down and to articulate, she credits everything to Sharp and Shannon Jones, the assistant director.
"It's our director and assistant director who really make this happen," Condon said.
Both Sharp and Jones work for Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, which partnered with Glenelg to produce the show by providing the rights to "Aladdin," costumes and Jones as assistant director. Sharp and Jones, who is also a recent graduate of Glenelg, have both been involved in the school's special needs productions in previous years — Sharp as a director, and Jones as a peer.
During Monday's rehearsal, Sharp, Jones and Robinson all sat on the floor in front of the stage, prompting lines, waving their hands to the music and always encouraging their actors and keeping them focused. While there are some drama students on stage, the group is a mix of students.
"Anybody who wants to be part of it is," Sharp said.
Kyle Foster's older brother had been involved in a past production, so the 14-year-old freshman was interested, despite having little experience on stage.
"I did a fifth-grade show. I was Mowgli in 'Jungle Book.' That was fifth grade, though," said Foster, who originally thought he would join as an upper classman. "I met Alex ( with whom he and another actor share the role of the genie) and he is such a great guy. We became close friends and now we're doing this."
An evening performance was scheduled Wednesday, March 29. All of the students at Glenelg will see the show on March 31, when it is performed at 12:30 p.m.
"When we finally have a live audience in here, they [the students] feed off the energy and excitement," Sharp said. "It's so cool to see them light up."
As the cast came to a final pose after one of 'Aladdin's" signature songs on Monday, one actor summed up the performance.
"That felt good," she stated proudly.