Amador Valley and Foothill high schools are celebrating a quarter century of creative collaboration next weekend with an epic stage production of the reimagined Broadway musical, "Cinderella."
The classic rags-to-riches tale comes with a contemporary twist this year, including a new power dynamic between Cinderella and her fella.
Each year the two rival schools set aside their competitive spirits and put on an entirely new musical while also building friendships. Past productions include "Beauty and the Beast" and last year's "Thoroughly Modern Millie."
It's the second time they've done "Cinderella" but the cast of 45 actors -- plus 30 crew members and 35 orchestra players -- boasts that this year's version, which runs for two weekends starting next Friday, is also thoroughly modern and unlike the Disney rendition.
The show's updated telling retains its original feel of whimsy but bucks tradition by evolving Cinderella into a more socially conscious figure who teaches the prince how to be an inspiring leader.
"Cinderella is a very strong character," musical director Mark Aubel told the Weekly while taking a break during rehearsals. "Instead of being the fair maiden saved by the prince, she shows him how to be compassionate, how to care for his kingdom and make things better."
"He's trying to figure out who he is and how to rule," Amador senior Cyrus Berglin, one of the two boys who star in the leading role of Prince Topher during the show's run, said about his character. The other Prince Topher, Amador junior Michael Steele, described him as "more of a soft-hearted (person), really innocent ... he's in need of guidance."
Cinderella and Prince Topher's egalitarian bond makes things fresh but audience members can still expect her famous glass slipper and magical pumpkin carriage to make a grand appearance, as well as singing animals and dazzling dress transformations. Brand new characters and songs like "In My Own Little Corner", "Impossible" and "Music in Me" also breathe new life into the show, as well as elaborate gowns, ballroom choreography and set pieces handcrafted by the students.
"This is a completely new experience to be in," said Lauryn Hedges, one of the two girls playing Cinderella. The Amador junior said "Cinderella" stands apart from other Amador-Foothill productions she's been in, including "Beauty and the Beast."
"It's a very fun, new, updated version," Hedges said. "It's unlike what I've seen Cinderella like before."
Some of the cast members are also new to the stage; Berglin is making his acting debut after Aubel, who teaches Berglin's choir class, encouraged him to audition for the musical back in December. "It was literally the day of auditions," Berglin said. "I just on a whim decided, and it has been a very good experience so far."
Putting together "Cinderella" is a laborious process that starts with paying for the rights to put on the musical, which Aubel said usually starts around $8,000. The cast is also grappling with new obstacles presented over the past month when they were informed they would no longer be able to use the balcony inside the Amador Theater due to a fire escape issue. The seating limitations have increased pressure to sell enough tickets and do more fundraising since none of the show costs are covered by the school district.
Auditions are held before winter break and continue with rehearsals for several months, both after school and on weekends. During that period, students from both Amador and Foothill pitch in together on every aspect of production; music, singing, acting, dancing, costuming, and set, sound and light design are all carefully considered.
No detail was spared to fashion a make-believe world that's also realistic; Amador drama teacher and artistic director Lynn Kirksey used innovative ideas like using "spray foam to make the texture of rocks and trees" for set pieces and props, including covering plastic balls with a layer of string to create a display of yarn balls for sale in a village market scene.
Kirksey and crew members also "bought a whole bunch (of door shims) and glued them together" to make the wood siding for village buildings. These design hacks not only saved time but also made the pieces lighter and therefore easier to carry around onstage.
"What's interesting about this play is there's no blackouts," Kirksey noted, so the audience will see the scene changes as they take place. The experimental approach is executed by "looking at how various scenes have been blocked and choreographed," said Dax Treible, Foothill theater and the show's technical director.
Treible and student crew members make sure the lighting color and transition on stage "visually represents and is commensurate with what the script is telling."
There's never a shortage of action on set; while the crew paints and pounds away backstage, orchestra players repeat their passages in Aubel's music room and principal and ensemble dancers work on intricate waltz steps in Amador's multipurpose room. Many cast members have varying degrees of dance experience but learning the more formal ballroom choreography presented a unique challenge for some.
"It's very rigid, I'm not used to being as rigid as you're supposed to be ... but it's really fun," said ensemble member Gracie Bitting, a freshman at Amador.
Despite a decades-old cross-town rivalry, students from both campuses said most of it is overhyped and doesn't reflect how most feel about each other. "It's mostly just for sports, football," said Kinsey Ferrera, an Amador junior who plays Charlotte, one of the wicked stepsisters.
"For the most part of this, the rivalry stays elsewhere," Treible added. "We like working with them. We look at ourselves as the musical team and not 'Foothill and Amador get together'."
Foothill junior Oliver Tildesley, who plays Lord Pinkleton -- right-hand man to the prince's right-hand man -- said that the boys from both schools have definitely bonded during rehearsals.
"My favorite part so far, it's been having fun with everyone, mostly the guys," Tildesley said with a laugh. "We have our own in-jokes. We're severely outnumbered by the girls so we need to unite as one."
Joking aside, every student said they've only expanded their social circle from being in the show, which some come to consider like family.
"Normally they're intense rivalries but we all get together and work for months as a team with a common goal," Aubel said. "The thing I like most is so many different aspects are put together. When you put it all together, it just creates something magical. When it all comes together in one piece, it's a great feeling, just a great experience all around."
Til the stroke of midnight
Who: Amador Valley and Foothill high schools
When: March 8, 9, 15, 16 at 7:30 p.m., March 10, 17 at 2 p.m.
Where: Amador Theater, 1155 Santa Rita Road, Pleasanton
Tickets: $15-$18. Go to www.firehousearts.org, or purchase at the theater box office.