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SKANEATELES — Joe Norris and Caroline Raymond likely don't have to worry about being typecast any time soon — the Skaneateles Middle School seventh-grader and eighth-grader, respectively, said their personalities are much different than the characters they portray.

As the middle school drama program prepares to put on a production of "Seussical Jr." this week, Norris plays the part of Horton the Elephant and Raymond plays the part of Mayzie LaBird, two of the principal roles in the musical.

"I like how sassy she is, and that's completely not what I'm like," Raymond said of her character. "It's fun to play someone that's the complete opposite. She's just crazy, but she knows herself. ... She knows herself, but she's still insane."

Norris said he likes the moral behind his character: Horton tries to protect the Whos that no one else knows exist and sits on Mazie's abandoned egg even though he has other problems to face. But, that character is still different from Norris' personality.

"I think he's a very admirable character," Norris said. "I'm a very high energy, can't stand still, not timid sort of guy, and Horton is the opposite of all those things. He's really timid, and he's slow."

The middle schoolers are slated to present "Seussical Jr." starting with a senior citizens performance at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, March 31. Subsequent performances take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 1 and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, April 2.

Colleen Anna, who leads the middle school drama program, said "Seussical Jr." is not much different from its full-length version put on in high schools and at more professional levels.

Some of the songs are shortened to fit into a 70- to 80-minute, one-act performance, she said, and some of the keys are changed to fit the younger, changing voices of the student actors. Otherwise, it's the same musical.

"I felt like we needed something very high energy," Anna said of why she chose this musical. "I have a lot of boys. Because I've got all these boys, I just felt like I needed something high energy."

Describing "Seussical Jr." as jazzy and poppy, Anna said it stands out from last year's production of "State Fair" that she described as "very traditional ... really classical musical theater."

"I like to mix it up so that the kids I have for three years get three really different types of musicals, so when they go on to high school, they have a full experience of various musical theater styles," she said.

She also strives to send them to high school with a foundation of performing experience should they decide to continue participating in the drama program over those four years.

She said rehearsals involve everything from memorizing lines and songs to learning how to dance and how to sing, but the practice goes well beyond just getting ready for the particular show.

"Our rehearsals are vocal warm-ups and learning how to sing," Anna said. "Our rehearsals are stretching and dancing and learning basic dance steps long before they ever get put into an actual song. They're learning really basic, fundamental vocal, dance and acting skills."

Through a mixture of games and stretches to learn the basics, Anna said the cast is ready to go when it comes to actually putting a scene together.

"We do the entire cast every single rehearsal so that everybody gets a shot at learning vocal warm-ups and learning dance techniques and being able to stretch," she said. "Over six or eight weeks, you can really sculpt a young person's dance skills. We can make those muscles longer, and you can really establish a ballet or jazz step."

Rehearsals also involve "a lot of talking," Anna said, and not just in the form of reading lines. Practice means analyzing the production to keep improving it, and it consists of some character education of sorts.

"We do a lot of talking about how we're going to show our families or the community or the school district that we're ready for this," Anna said. "What can we do to show everybody this is worthwhile? 'I'm willing to put aside this other thing or make time to make sure I can keep up with homework and all these other things so that I can be a part of this show."

With about a week left before the opening performance, Anna said she is not a fan of running the show from start to finish every practice but instead likes to add on a song and dance each time to build the show toward completion by the end of the eight weeks of rehearsal.

She particularly likes to see the show grow over the final two weeks, and she said the cast recently learned an entire new song and choreography — and because of the time spent learning the basics, they mastered it all in the two-hour rehearsal.

"This is a really complicated, almost like a mini-opera," she said. "It's all sung. There's almost no dialogue. For young voices and people that aren't really experienced, it's very challenging. It's a really difficult show, I think."

Both Norris and Raymond have appeared on stage since elementary school, and both said it is something they enjoy doing and hope to continue.

"It's fun to perform," Raymond said. "I love performing. I love singing and dancing. It's just all together."

"I like the acting part of it because I'm a really talkative kid and good at talking, and I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies," Norris said. "When I get these lines, I like to put my own spin on them and be this character, sort of like I'm an actor."

But, both student actors also acknowledged their own challenges with "Seussical Jr." For Norris, it's scaling back his personality to meet Horton's character — in one scene, he is chasing the dust speck but must approach it slowly rather than running for it.

"It takes a lot of vocal strength," Raymond said of her part. "Mayzie has to hold out these insanely long notes and dance at the same time, so I'm out of breath but I still have to do it."

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Journal Editor Jonathan Monfiletto can be reached at jonathan.monfiletto@lee.net or (315) 283-1615. Follow him on Twitter @WOC_Monfiletto.

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