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For Manual, a journey to Oz yields talking lions, wicked witches and normalcy

It was the last full week of rehearsals for the cast of Manual High School’s production of “The Wiz.” And the Cowardly Lion had just learned he’s going to have to shave his beard.

“What? Noooo!” bemoaned Jonah Madrid-Andrews, the senior portraying the Lion.

He and his fellow castmates, who are starring in the traditionally African-American musical based on “The Wizard of Oz,” were in the first three rows of seats in the spacious auditorium listening to feedback from their directors before one of their last rehearsals begins in earnest.

It’s that moment in time leading up to opening night that drives most directors crazy, English teacher and director Ben Butler told his cast.

“Lines are memorized, we get to this place where we think we’re all OK, but mistakes start to happen,” he said. “It’s not enough to have your lines memorized. It’s not enough for me. It shouldn’t be enough for you. I need you to bring the energy from the beginning.”

In the final weeks of the school year, energy is at a premium at Denver’s Manual High School. Students and most of the adults have been in class since last July. Coupled with the intense scrutiny the school has been under since its academic performance plummeted last year and a rancorous leadership change at the beginning of the year, members of the school community say they’re tired.

Listen to ‘The Wiz’

“A lot happened this year that we can’t get back,” said John Goe, the school’s art teacher. “If we can get thought this year, next year will be good.”

But as their school year, which has been cut short, comes to a close, they say, there’s so much to look forward to: prom, award ceremonies, graduation, and of course, “The Wiz.” And while students and teachers push through these last few weeks, the school’s administrators have been squaring away what needs to happen for the school to be ready for the fall, finalizing course offerings and working on student schedules.

For the first time in a very long while, staff and students say, it feels like Manual is just a high school.

“I love the idea of high school,” Butler said during an interview. “You shouldn’t have a high school without dances, musicals, sports. It lights up my world. It’s the little things that make it a high school.”

Meet the new Board of Education president, Dennis Walcott. (Center)

Camryn Torres, who portrays Dorothy in “The Wiz,” gets feedback during a recent rehearsal from her directors Ben Butler, left, and Rodney Douglas.

Maura Walz

The proper balance between academic rigor, life lessons, and just plain fun has been an ongoing debate in public education for years, Butler acknowledges. For Butler, high school should be a place where any student can earn a well-rounded education and find a place to call his or her own in the social ecoystem. With Denver trending toward small, niche schools, the novel thing to do is be a comprehensive high school, he said.

But for now, he said, the direction from the school’s new administration team is to make Manual a high school that just focuses on the basics. And that’s a good thing, Butler said. Gone is the school’s social justice paradigm and experiential learning program.

“We’re just gonna do ‘school,’ every day,” he said.

But just as Dorothy knew there were outside forces beyond her control that could affect her journey to see the Wiz, teachers know more changes are likely in store for Manual as the district reviews possible new school models to be implemented during the 2015-16 school year.

“It was a like a hammer dropping on us,” said Goe, who is building the musical’s sets and designing the costumes, of learning about the potential changes, which could include turning Manual into a ninth-grade academy for neighboring East High School.

But if the tenuous normalcy at Manual is in any jeopardy, students either don’t seem to know or mind. They’re focused on the musical and other end-of-year festivities.

Manual High School junior Reylando Carolina, who plays the Tin Man in the school’s production of “The Wiz,” watches his castmates rehearse.

Manual High School junior Reylando Carolina, who plays the Tin Man in the school’s production of “The Wiz,” watches his castmates rehearse.

Nicholas Garcia

“I’m happy,” said Reylando Carolina, a junior who plays the Tin Man. “I know we’re not where [Denver Public Schools] would like us to be. But, my entire family has gone to this school. They came out on top. I’m concerned. But there’s still light for us.”

Part of that optimism might stem from the personal journey of self-discovery the cast is on that runs parallel to the journey of their characters. The principal cast members said they’ve learned valuable life lessons, as well as tricks of the theater trade, through their three months of rehearsal.

Carolina, the Tin Man, said he’s learned to allow himself to be vulnerable in relationships.

“My relationships — not just boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, but all relationships, like with my parents — weren’t always the best,” he said. “I always doubted whether I was giving enough, but the Tin Man showed me I do give my all in relationships.”

Madrid-Andrews, the Cowardly Lion, said he’s learned to be comfortable with himself and his passions — even his yearning for the stage bucks the stereotypical masculine role his family hopes he fulfills.

Davonte Swain, the Scarecrow, said he’s learned to believe in himself.

“Even though [the Scarecrow] says he doesn’t have any brains, he’s still smart and not afraid to say what’s on his mind,” he said.

Camryn Torres, Dorothy, said she’s learned “not to take stuff from people,” and how to be a leader.

“I was one of those types of people who let everyone else do things for me,” she said. “But [Dorothy], she leads everyone.”

That’s exactly the kind of learning Butler was looking for when he set out to direct the play, he said.

“The greatness is already within them, they just need to be put in a position to use it,” Butler said.

Seniors like Madrid-Andrews will have to use those new lessons learned at college. Several members of the senior class are off to Adams State University in Alamosa, their director’s alma mater. For others like, Carolina, who takes a 40-minute bus ride across town to attend the school his parents went to, they’ll be able to apply those lessons at Manual, which they hope, for now, will be just a normal high school.

Manual’s production of “The Wiz” runs May 8, 9 and 10. Evening performances start at 7 p.m. There is a Saturday manatee at 2 p.m. Tickets are $6 for adults, $4 for children and students, and may be purchased at the box office.

Cast members of “The Wiz,” produced by Manual High, rehearse after school.

Cast members of “The Wiz,” produced by Manual High, rehearse after school.

Maura Walz