When Pauline Maranian brought up "High School Musical" as an option for Estancia High School's annual production, one of her students burst into tears.
Alarmed, the drama teacher rushed to ask what was wrong, only to be reassured that the waterworks were prompted by happiness.
Such has been the overwhelmingly positive response to the Costa Mesa school's Disney-inspired production, Maranian remarked.
"These kids were crazy for this show," she said. "They went wild when I just mentioned it. They were on the edge of their seats, crossing their fingers and praying that I would choose it."
Maranian, who makes it a point to consult her students, recalled tossing around ideas including "Catch Me If You Can," "Legally Blonde," "Honk!" and "Merrily We Roll Along." When it came down to the wire, though, she went with "High School Musical" because of the enthusiasm and nostalgia it illicited from them. Not only does it have the potential to draw a big crowd, she said, but it will also perfectly round out the season, which began in the fall with a dark comedy, "Big Love."
"These kids were about 8 or 9 when the movie came out, so it's part of their childhood," Maranian said. "It's their generation's version of 'Grease.' They're in that age bracket right now where there's a window of opportunity. In a few years, the kids who I have won't have been as attached to 'High School Musical' as these kids, so it's very appealing to their age group and their peers."
The show will be presented in the Robert B. Wentz Theater at Newport Harbor High School from Thursday to Saturday. A contract and royalty fees ensure that guests will be treated to an authentic Disney experience; the Estancia team will not be permitted to diverge from the story.
The original film, released in 2006 and starring Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale and Corbin Bleu, was shot at Salt Lake City-based East High School and Murray High School as well as other parts of the city.
A tremendous success story for Disney Channel Original Movie, it was followed first by a television sequel, "High School Musical 2," and then by the feature film, "High School Musical 3: Senior Year." With a soundtrack that became that year's highest-selling album in the United States, "High School Musical" tells the tale of two juniors, Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez, and their classmates.
Estancia's Abigail Garcia, 17, who plays diva Sharpay Evans, recounted initally pushing for the classic "The Music Man." She was on the fence about "High School Musical" until she realized what the show meant to her friends.
"For us, since we are not a performing arts school — we are just a normal public high school — we needed a show that our whole class could be a part of, and this seemed to be the best option," the senior said.
Typically, productions star Maranian's drama students, but this time she opened up the auditions to the entire school — making Abigail, of Costa Mesa, very nervous.
"Our drama class is so 100% involved in drama that it's become our life," she said. "So it scared me to think that a bunch of random kids from school could be a part of it and not really respect it as much as we do."
Abigail added that it "was awesome" when 60 students showed up to try out, armed with all the songs' lyrics, dance routines and, most importantly, a desire to do a good job.
Rehearsals, which run three to five hours four times a week, began in March. On a recent Saturday, the cast of 40, plus 15 crew members, spent 13 hours practicing their parts, music and choreography.
Although the long hours have meant that Sterling Gates, a junior, comes to school at 7 a.m. and doesn't return home until 10 or 11 p.m., he's not complaining.
"It's like the reward at the end of the day," said the 16-year-old, who packs his weekends and any downtime with homework. "The rehearsals may be stressful, and you need to stay focused and committed, but I really like that environment and the theater world. At the end of the day, it's like going to the job you love."
The Costa Mesa resident, who portrays Sharpay's brother, Ryan, reflected on Estancia's rendition of "Guys and Dolls" last year — the first time he had sung in front of anyone. His confidence has grown since then, said Sterling, who previously had only tested his ability as a tenor in the shower or the privacy of his room.
"My parents were like, 'Oh, we didnt even know you could sing!'" he said.
Abigail and Sterling agree with Maranian's assesment that "High School Musical" has been a source of joy for each participant and the bedrock for many close friendships among people who might not have interacted had it not been for the show.
"If they're having a bad day or a hard season of their lives, they come to the theater, and they can live in a Disney fantasy for a few hours," Maranian said.
If You Go
What: "High School Musical"
Where: Robert B. Wentz Theater at Newport Harbor High School, 600 Irvine Ave., Newport Beach
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Cost: $10 for students, $15 for adults and $8 per person for groups of 15 and more
Information: http://www.estancia.nmusd.us or (949) 515-6537