One in a series of occasional articles

It's all so familiar, so old-fashioned: The dim church hall with its utilitarian stage and acres of beige linoleum. The squeak of folding chairs, the melodies from the workhorse of a piano.

Except for the flip-flops and the Harry Potter books, it might be 1957, the year that Robert Preston and Barbara Cook brought The Music Man to life for the first time.

This summer, at St. Mary's of the Assumption Church in Govans, the roles of "Professor" Harold Hill and Marian "the Librarian" Paroo belong to 11-year-old Willy Mason and 10-year-old Hilde Wulf. They also belong to Hannah Briggs and Sophie DeFries because: No. 1, Three Ring Theater believes in giving as many kids as possible a chance for a good part and No. 2, 18 of the 21 kids in the show are girls.

Shaping the production are 16-year-old director Jordy Stopak-Behr and 15-year-old choreographer Rachel McCandliss. The pair brings a lot of experience to this production - they have been immersed in Three Ring Theater since they were 4, 5, maybe 6. For them, July means spending long days in this church hall, creating and inhabiting imagined worlds.

Year after year they've swapped lunch food under "the one shade tree that's in the parking lot." Year after year they've tackled roles in musicals such as Fiddler on the Roof, Big River, Oliver and West Side Story.

Now they're encouraging other kids aged 8 to 12 to move closer to the microphones dangling over the stage. And Jordy, a curly-haired teenager in cargo shorts, is already anticipating how he'll feel in August 2007, when he heads off to college.

"This has been my life ever since I was a toy soldier in Pinocchio," he says. "It's what I do every summer."

Gloria Krutul, the guiding force at the piano, knows what he means. Long ago in northwest Chicago, she put on neighborhood shows with grade-school buddies. When she moved to Baltimore, she rekindled the spirit of that summer tradition by introducing a theater program in a summer camp in Govans, then at her home in Cedarcroft and finally inside her parish's church hall. During the school year, the piano teacher runs Three Ring Theater on Saturdays. In June, however, she begins presiding over several summer productions that require kids to paint stage sets, design posters and learn lines, songs and dance steps in only three weeks.

Krutul has come to appreciate, and she hopes, influence, what happens when the kids aren't on stage: That perpetual rehearsal of getting along with one another. Some bury themselves in books while others offer piggy-back rides to younger kids or help each other with choreography.

During the first run-through for The Music Man, for instance, a few bare feet quietly repeat patterns on the cool floor tiles while 12-year-old Sophie warms up to "My White Knight" and the microphone:

"All I want is a plain man, All I want is a modest man.

"A quiet man, a gentle man, a straightforward and honest man," she sings, sweetly and earnestly, to the sprinkling of fellow actors, the coat rack filled with costumes, the distant bustle of the parking lot and, beyond that, any potential soul-mates.

It's clear that Sophie knows her stuff.

At the next break, the director offers up general comments: "Everyone needs to slow down when they're talking. ... Be louder and conscious of where the mikes are. ... When you turn, you don't want your back to the audience. ... If your character is angry, you need to look angry. ... Go over your lines at least once tonight."

Somehow, summer after summer, everything comes together by showtime. The songs swell with surprising passion, the parents and friends laugh in all the right places. It's pretty thrilling to act grown-up - as long as it's only a play.