Brittany Corders, 11, of Bartlett, left, practices lines with Elizabeth Morgan, 16, of Chicago, offstage.
"High School Musical" is one of the most successful Disney Channel Original Movies ever produced, and its rights have been purchased by thousands of schools and theater groups across the country.
Few, if any, have interpreted the play's theme the way it will be seen next month at Gymkhana in Hanover Park, when a cast of 40, including 25 with Down syndrome, bring the story to life.
While the original movie aims to break down social stereotypes and cliques, this presentation tackles breaking down perceptions of people with disabilities.
The idea is one that has drawn great interest. Its four shows sold out in one week, nearly a month before its opening performance on April 11.
"Our goal is one of integration," says director Orion Couling, artistic director for Gymkhana. "We want people of all abilities working alongside each other."
The concept starts at the top, with Nick Lamore, 13, of Streamwood playing Troy opposite Moira Morgan of Chicago, who plays Gabrielle, and has Down syndrome.
During a recent rehearsal of the first act, with actors running through the audition scene -- including peer partners with their special needs counterparts -- the buzz on stage came to a halt when Lamore and Morgan combined to sing, "What I've Been Looking For."
His strong voice seemed to enhance her softer, sweeter sound, and the result galvanized the crowded stage, much as it did in the original movie.
"They are amazing together," Couling says. "I see this in a lot of theater I direct, of the partnering that goes on. As the rehearsals continue there's a commitment to nurture, especially when they see how much they need each other on stage."
Parents with the Schaumburg-based support group, "UPS for DownS," approached Couling last fall with the idea of casting some of their youngsters with Down syndrome in the musical.
Couling had worked with children with special needs before, as recently as in November, when he included a Bartlett youngster with autism into the theater's performance of "Aladdin, Jr."
"He's the one that makes this work," says Peggy Grunewald of Palatine, an UPS parent whose daughter, Katelyn, is in the show. "He brings so much spirit and energy to the rehearsals, that it's contagious."
Stephanie Neri of Schaumburg has two children in the show, including Julia, 13, who has Down syndrome and her sister, Anna, 15. She sees both learning a lot from the experience.
"They're gaining so much from the sense of teamwork, as well as the benefits in reading and comprehension," Neri says. "(Couling) expects a lot out of them, and they're living up to those expectations."
Garret Anderson, 19, of Lake Zurich, plays the role of Coach Bolton, Troy's father and the antagonist in the play. While many of the cast members relied on their scripts to recite their lines, Anderson strode on stage confidently and commanded the scene with his delivery.
"I love acting and being on stage," says Anderson, who also serves as a Global Messenger for Special Olympics. "I like playing good guys, but I'm having fun being Coach Bolton."
Along with his work at Gymkhana, Couling leads his own company, EDGE, or Esteem Development Through Greater Expectations, teaching theatrical sword fighting in workshops to school assemblies and special needs groups.
He has worked with children with disabilities for years, but even he has been surprised at the results from this production, he says.
"This show is about inclusion, and breaking down social boundaries, and these kids bring a real honesty to that," Couling says. "They're playing it from somewhere very real."
The result climaxes in the final scene, he says, when the entire cast comes on stage to sing the show's closing number, "We're All in This Together."