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How a Siouxland high school pulls off a 2-hour musical: 100 students, 2 months
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Preparing for a big production

How a Siouxland high school pulls off a 2-hour musical: 100 students, 2 months

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Westwood musical

Teacher Tom Gerking leads as Westwood High School students rehearse a portion of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" on Thursday at the school in Sloan, Iowa. Students will perform the musical Nov. 14-15.

SIOUX CITY -- "Let's go, go, go, go! We have wasted two minutes already ... I need people onstage," Tom Gerking called out just before noon in the Westwood School District auditorium the last week of October.

Seconds later, Gerking hit a button on a laptop to play recorded music. Two Westwood student actresses moved onto the stage in the practice, with senior Maddie Holst from stage right, Holly Holtz from stage left, and immediately assumed their narrator roles for the opening scene of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

Minutes later, senior Sam Miller, who portrays the Biblical Joseph lead character, was front and center, belting out the "I Had a Dream" song. Miller last week became the first four-year All-State vocalist in Westwood history.

By the fourth song, more than two dozen Westwood High School students swamped the stage, and Gerking gave instruction to the group, during a scene where more colors were added to Joseph's coat.

"As they add each color, you are getting more excited. We should feel that from your body language and your movements and your singing. Let the audience know!" he said assertively.

In pulling off the musical play that will run for about one hour and 45 minutes, Westwood teacher and director Gerking over two months will at varying times both lightly cajole and get tough with more than 100 students, who are juggling numerous other school and personal tasks.

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That means a lot of work, from the time of auditions after Labor Day until the performance in the first half of November. The good thing, Gerking said, is students have a lot of buy-in to the plays he directs in even-numbered years and the much bigger musicals that draw good crowds on odd-numbered years. In a smaller school district, such as the K-12 enrollment in Westwood of 563 pupils, there is some degree of arm-twisting to fill out the cast.

"They like being in things that are successful. Kids like to be in things that are good," Gerking said.

Westwood musical

Westwood High School students rehearse a portion of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" on Thursday at the school in Sloan, Iowa. A large cast will perform the musical Nov. 14-15.

Jacob Leonard plays Jacob, the father of Joseph. Leonard is in his second musical, as he did "Emma" as a freshman, and he's heavy into sports, such as wrestling and baseball. This semester alone he's on FFA, band, choir and the football team that made the Class A playoffs.

"I leave my house at 6 a.m. and don't get home until 10 (p.m.)," Leonard said.

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Orpheum Theatre

He said Gerking heavily recruited football players to join the musical.

"Gerking got all of us to go out ... He is an amazing director. He knows what makes us tick and how to get us excited," Leonard said.

"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," a musical with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, will be performed Nov. 14 and 15 at the Westwood school in Sloan. Every line of dialogue is sung, nothing is spoken, which takes a special kind of acting, Gerking said.

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A native of Lawton, Iowa, Gerking got instilled into the world of high school plays when attending Lawton-Bronson in the mid-1980s, with help from teachers Jo Archer and Nancy Davis. He recalled once forgetting his character's quote, when many actors gave him numerous obvious leading lines in front of a performance crowd.

"I got better as I went along. I was a nervous person," Gerking said.

Gerking came to Westwood for a teaching job in 1990-91, and succeeded Myron Armour as play director. Beginning with "Grease" as the first musical in 1991, and leading the largest cast in "The Wizard of Oz," he's now directed 13 musicals.

"I am in no way, shape or form an expert on the stage and drama part. I am good at the music part," he said.

Gerking said he's learned the key things needed from the hundreds of student actors, beginning with a very practical one.

"Showing up for rehearsal would be number one. People who don't show up drive you crazy. Memorize your part early. Get into your character," he said.

By the end of each school year, Gerking is mulling ideas for plays, and usually makes the ultimate choice by matching the number of quality students who are boys and girls he expects to fill out roles.

For musicals, Gerking taps students younger than high school, such as the large 48-member chorus of elementary kids who will be in "Joseph."

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Practices are from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and over the final weeks the choir school period is used for practice as well. Given all the other extracurricular activities students are in, by Oct. 29 Gerking had only had a full cast for a practice twice.

"Seventy percent of the kids are in athletics. You just make it work," he said.

Gerking said some years the production can look ragged in the final days. He tries not to worry.

"I am wired at age 51 the same way that I was when I was 15. I get nervous, wound up," he said.

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"... My expectations are always high. The students usually rise to the occasion. They know how to turn it on when you least expect it. They step up, either with adrenaline or they just put in enough extra work to make it happen."

Gerking admitted his self-care during the months of play production is limited.

"You run yourself until you collapse ... I don't sleep," he said, with some sidelights being going to other Westwood school events or maybe watching "Law and Order" reruns.

Gerking noted he has others helping during "Joseph," including accompanist Bob Barry, band director Blake Lyon, elementary music teacher Taurice Lounsbury and Wendy Bryce, who has helped with staging over the final month.

Westwood senior Ashlee Swearingen was in plays in other schools before coming to the high school last year. Swearingen said Gerking has been a "remarkable" director for the two productions she's been in, including this year as a wife of one of Joseph's brothers.

"He is hard on us, but it is with the best intentions. He prepares us very well," Swearingen said.

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