Aryn Spry will never forget the cell phone call last February that changed her life.
Asleep in the back seat of her parents' car, she awoke to her sister shaking her shoulders and shouting, "Aryn, you got the part!" After her fourth New York audition in a year, she had been chosen to play Young Nala, Simba's childhood companion, in Disney's national Broadway tour of The Lion King.
Yesterday, on a break from the tour, 11-year-old Aryn came back for a visit to Ridgeway Elementary School in Severn, where she will return to the fifth grade in April after performing in nine cities.
Aryn spoke to her class about her experiences on the road and the stage. And she gave them a taste of Broadway, singing "I Just Can't Wait to be King" from The Lion King score. Aryn belted out her part while her sister, Amber -- who wants to pursue a film career -- sang the Simba part.
Justin Furlough, an 11-year-old classmate, said he was surprised at Aryn's projection.
"I'd heard her sing before she left, but it was just great. She blew me away," Furlough said.
Other pupils were happier to see that Aryn hadn't changed since being away. Typpre Strickland, 10, said she appreciated Aryn's honesty about missing her family and friends at school.
"I liked that she said she wanted to come back to school," Typpre said. "She misses us, and we all really miss her."
Aryn credited her principal, Duane Arbogast, with her success. She had sung in her church's choir since she was 5, but it was not until Arbogast suggested Aryn do community theater that she recognized her talent. In 2000, she became part of the Talent Machine Company, a children's performance group in Annapolis.
Arbogast said it was her performance of "Castle in the Sky" from Les Miserables that put Aryn in the limelight.
"Her voice was like a bell, a bell," he said. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh.'"
But winning a part in The Lion King took work and patience. Though her voice had been praised at each audition, Aryn was told repeatedly that she was too small. After more than a year of trips to the casting director, however, she reached what was considered the "magic height" for the part.
Aryn, who travels with her father, Mike Spry, while on tour, typically leaves a city after six weeks of performing in four shows a week. Today, she leaves for Indianapolis and will finish her stint in Detroit.
Traveling with professionals has helped her learn the seriousness of the job, Aryn said. She spends six days a week at the theater rehearsing or studying with a tutor, but gathers her energy for each performance.
"I'm usually always tired by the time I get to the theater for the show, but when I'm doing my makeup, I'm thinking about what a blessing it is to be here," she said. "Once I'm out there, I use the laughs and claps to energize me."
Aryn said she plans to leave the show this spring before the tour is finished and return to school, once she outgrows the part.
But don't count out future roles in entertainment. One classmate asked Aryn if people recognize her or if admirers follow her while she shops in New York City.
"Not yet," she said.