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In Oak Park, it isn't necessary to be a "Gleek" (Glee freak) or even turn on a TV to be glee-dazzled.
Last fall Noteworthy, the inaugural show choir at Oak Park and River Forest High School, debuted, and under the co-direction of Amber Hooper, 30, and Kejuan Carter, 26, the new extracurricular student activity is taking off.
Like the hit TV series on Fox, this real-world show choir is in rehearsal to stage an adrenalin-infused performance featuring eight back-to-back songs at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 25 in the OPRF auditorium. Tickets cost $7, $3 for seniors.
Worth noting is that the 22 talented teens of Noteworthy seem to effortlessly belt out pop tunes while rigorously hoofing and smiling and glistening (yes, that means sweat), while maintaining their balance on dance risers for nearly an hour.
That alone is entertainment worth the price of admission, Hooper says.
"The hardest song in my opinion, is "A Little Less Conversation," says Lephate Cunningham III, 16, a junior at OPRF. "Learning the song wasn't that bad. But it took us three hours to learn half of the dance. The song is only 4 minutes long. It was just a lot of movement."
Sandwiching that song, made famous by Elvis "The Pelvis" Presley, is an eclectic set that jumps genres — from the disco hit "Shake your Groove Thing" (Peaches & Herb), to Duran Duran's dulcet and melodious ballad, "Ordinary World," and a guys-only number, "Step into the Bad Side," the one Academy Award nominee Eddie Murphy performed in the musical "Dream Girls."
Like Murphy, these guys do it with attitude, says Carter, the choral coach and conductor of the four-piece student pit band.
All of it, asserts Hooper, the group's choreographer, is a feat for the feet — and the diaphragm.
"Just think of all the spinning involved. Even without dancing and singing at the same time, singing is very much an aerobic thing, and all about their projection and breath," Carter says. "Keeping that together and dancing is challenging. But these kids have a lot of energy and are definitely up for it."
Having already staged a run of six songs in their first concert last fall, the upcoming performance will add two tunes, "Forget You" by Cee Lo Green, and "Livin' on a Prayer," by Bon Jovi.
"Cee Lo Green's 'Forget You' is a very musical theateresque number, and there will be a lot of acting in it," says Hooper, who herself is an alum of a northwest suburban high school show choir, and the original impetus behind starting a show choir at OPRF. "It's actually a Glee arrangement, the one that Gwyneth Paltrow sang on the show."
On a recent Wednesday night in the green room at OPRF, Noteworthy is getting ready for a run-through — a full dress rehearsal. The gals and guys are all "show-choired up" in glittery, blue-sequened halter dresses and spiked heels, while the dudes don spiffy matching vests, ties and dress pants.
For about 40 minutes now they have been stepping, kicking, twirling, turning, sashaying and singing in sync. OPRF senior Kevin Orzel, 18, has taken center stage and begins emoting his way through an iconic Tina Turner monologue.
"Every now and then, you think you may want to hear something from us nice and easy. But there's just one thing. We never, ever do nothin' nice and easy. We do it nice … and rough."
Then the whirling dervish that is Ike and Tina Turner's "Proud Mary" starts to roll.
"I always think that taking something cool, and then bedazzling it, makes it way cooler," Orzel said in a group interview in the high school choral room. "'Proud Mary' is a very up-tempo song, and it's also a very happy song that people wanted to hear us sing out very loud, and at the same time, we had to dance really fast, and that's hard to do. But then there is this moment after we finish, and are literally exhausted and drenched in sweat, where everybody is like, 'Wow, you guys are so cool because everything was like building up to that song.' That is the best moment for me."
Suddenly, late last summer, Hooper and Carter got the go-ahead to form a show choir at OPRF, and they quickly pulled together the essentials, including a highly competitive open "cattle call" which brought out roughly 70 aspiring singers and dancers. These competitive "tryouts," says Carter, will be conducted annually, so kids who didn't make the cut now could be chosen the next time around, he says.
It takes skill, after all, to sing and dance at the same time.
Take the show opener, "Shake Your Groove Thing." The choreography incorporates cartwheels, body rolls and "fast, fun, funky uniform moves," Hooper notes.
Likewise, Carter says, his arrangement of "Ordinary World" is a jazzier version of the popular ballad, with a Latin/pop flavor and tight, "clashy" complex harmonies that are sometimes difficult to learn.
"When we auditioned these students, not all of them had sung together before," said Carter. "Some of them don't read music very well. So to watch them grow and become better musicians has been very rewarding," says the 2003 OPRF grad who also conducts the OPRF vocal jazz ensemble, Pitch Please.
Without missing a beat, Carter prognosticates that at least two-thirds of the kids in show choir this year could be Broadway-bound or on their way to becoming a pop artist, as a long line of OPRF grads have done before them.
"I've watched them doing ["Proud Mary"] in their dance rehearsals, dying," Carter says, "and they haven't even started singing yet. So I say, 'You think you're tired now? Just wait."
No "Gleek" himself, Carter was concerned at first that show choirs might be "kind of cheesy." He wanted Noteworthy to be a collaboration of vocal and dance with plenty of entertainment value. "I am so glad that Amber is a part of this and doing what she does," he says.
OPRF freshman Rachel Pospisil, 15, and junior Rebecca Weintrob, 17, are fans of the popular TV show, but both point out their show choir is not exactly like the fictional counterpart. They do, however, spontaneously break into song and dance in their choral room and agree, laughing, that without drama, there would be no theater.
"I am a giant fan of Glee, and I really like the character Rachel, basically because I love her energy. She's pretty awesome and wonderfully talented," says Weintrob, who says she especially enjoyed performing with the group for the seniors at Holly Court Terrace and the Oak Park Arms. They've also performed at Potbelly's in Oak Park and, earlier this month, under the Picasso at Daley Center in Chicago
Pospisil says that every dance has been difficult for her at first, but being a part of the group has helped her better manage her time as a student and grow as a performer.
"I definitely would encourage more kids to try out because even if you don't necessarily see yourself as a musical theater person, or you're not as strong a singer or dancer as you'd like to be, this helps bring it all together."
OPRF junior Jake Shadrake denies being a "Gleek," but he says having a show choir is a very good thing.
"I like to sing. I like to dance. I like performing," Shadrake says. "Yeah, singing and dancing at the same time is hard, but when you are dancing and you line up the steps with what you're singing, eventually it becomes more natural."
With a big smile on her face, Weintrob raises her hand, and everyone turns to listen: "I have something really cheesy to say," she announces. "When Jake said having a show choir at OPRF was a really good idea, I turned to Rachel and said it was noteworthy."
Imagine a gleeful groan.
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