For the 91 middle school students involved with this year's play, "Aladdin Jr.," it's been three months of rehearsals to try to perfect their performance. The result of their hard work will take center stage Thursday through Saturday with three evening shows and a matinee.

"We're really close; we definitely need to work on choreography a little bit just because it's a lot of people and there are always going to be little mistakes," seventh-grader Alora Gudge said last week. "The set itself ... they've been working really hard and it's getting close."

The play runs Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m. with the "A cast" and Saturday at 1 and 7 p.m. with the "B cast." All performances are presented in Philomath High School's auditorium. Admission is $7 at the door. With the number of students involved, organizers had to double-cast the play, which actually is not all that unusual.

"I believe about four or five years ago, we had a bigger cast but this is our second-biggest ever," said Diane Crocker, longtime performing arts instructor at the middle school. "It is a lot of middle school students all in one place."

The play's cast and crew performed a few scenes from "Aladdin Jr." during its annual Children's Tea Party Thursday afternoon.

"The snow days made it a little crazy for us," Crocker said. "This is our first day in costume, for example. We were scheduled to have a dress rehearsal yesterday (Wednesday) and because of the snow, we didn't have that."

Still, Crocker said things have moved along well.

"We are very proud of the kids," she said. "They're doing a great job. They're as ready as any team we've ever had."

The students obviously enjoy the activity based on those participation numbers.

"I like it because it lets me hang out with friends but we also get to showcase what we're doing and it's really fun," seventh-grader Bailey Bell, who is a veteran of the stage with three summer plays and last year's school play on her resume, said after Thursday's tea party fundraiser. "I really like 'Friend Like Me' — we performed that today. The dancing's really fun."

Gudge enjoys performing on stage.

"It's really fun to just see my friends for a few hours after school ... and then you also get to sing a lot," she said. "And you get to act — acting for me is just really fun to do."

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Gudge, who plays Iago with the "A cast," said performing "Prince Ali (reprise)" is her favorite part of the production.

"It's really fun because it's so high energy and because that's our only song we get to do," she said, "so we're always real excited to do it."

The middle school play relies on the help of parents to get it all done. Students pay a participation fee to be a part of the play but that is reduced if a parent volunteers.

"We can't do this by ourselves," Crocker said. "We've got a team of five or six directors, but we still need parents to help."

Crocker threw out a few examples.

"Laura Kildea put this whole tea on and Dana Ainsworth, one of the moms, she did the food for the 'Drama-Thon' last weekend, the overnight working slumber party," Crocker said. "Linda Skaar and Cheryl Anderton did a great job (with costumes) and several parent volunteers helped with all of that."

High school students have also helped, including choreographers Rhiannon Gudge and Aubrey Casey.

The plays are purchased through Music Theater International, a New York-based company.

"They put on these junior productions, which are designed especially for middle schools," Crocker said. "There's probably 25 different productions for us to choose from and they're creating new ones every year. So we go through and pick out our favorites."

Crocker said the productions finish in the black these days, which was not always the case. The school district covers some of the director costs, she said, and fundraising and ticket sales cover other expenses, such as those involved with costumes, makeup and materials for the set. And the royalty fees and scripts cost anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000.

"We've developed such a strong program that we're able to do that, no problem," Crocker said about covering expenses. "But in the early years, we were selling concessions at track meets and basketball games ... it was crazy what we had to do."

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