Aside from singing in church and playing a pig in "Charlotte's Web," Melannie Rivera hasn't had much performing experience.
So imagine her surprise when the 15-year-old landed the role of Amneris in the production of the Elton John and Tim Rice rock musical "Aida" that the Cleveland School District presents this week in PlayhouseSquare as the 14th annual All-City Musical.
"I'm not used to being a princess," says the ebullient Rivera, a ninth-grader at the Cleveland School of the Arts. "I'm used to being a tomboy."
Rivera and 49 other students from schools throughout Cleveland are transforming themselves from 21st-century teenagers into ancient (but hip) Egyptians and Nubians for the show, which they've been rehearsing since February.
Along the way, the students have savored collaborating with talented colleagues and professionals and learning about ancient civilizations.
"It's really about arts integration, arts infusion, cross-curricular instruction," says Tony Sias, director of arts education for the school district and co-director of the production. "It's having a deeper interest in the curriculum using the arts as exploration and investigation."
Nearly 140 students auditioned for this year's All-City Musical, a tradition that has included shows ranging from "The Hot Mikado" and "Carmen Jones" to "Guys and Dolls" and "West Side Story."
Sias says "Aida" was chosen in part because it is closely associated with pop stars Heather Headley and Deborah Cox, whom many of the cast members are familiar with.
"When you have pop artists who have been in these starring roles on Broadway, it's a point of entry and sensibility for the students," Sias says. "One of the other reasons we chose 'Aida' is because of the rich history the students learn."
Rivera, for example, knew little about Egypt or Nubia before joining the "Aida" cast. Nor did she or her peers have any idea that cataracts are rapids of the Nile River, not just an eye disease.
The students expanded their historical knowledge of the show's themes by taking a trip to the Great Lakes Science Center to see the Imax film "Mystery of the Nile" and view an exhibit about Egypt. They'll tap into another source when they watch a film of Verdi's opera, "Aida," upon which the musical is based.
The group taking part in the production includes six students working backstage with professional crew members and three students teaming with 11 professional musicians in the orchestra pit.
The students working on the tech crew are "responsible for moving our mobile set pieces around," says co-director Kimberly Brown, managing director of the All-City Arts Program.
"The way the play is written calls for some very fluid changes from top to bottom where the actors transition from one locale to another without any break in a song."
Musical presents a challenge
Since the score of "Aida" brims with songs, cast and crew members will be very busy, and many for the first time in a musical. Like Rivera, Marvin J. Malone II -- in the lead role of Radames -- is appearing in his first major production. He talks about the show with an enthusiasm on the far side of elation.
"The role is extremely, extremely -- I cannot put emphasis enough on extremely -- difficult," says Malone, 17, an 11th-grader at St. Peter Chanel High School in Bedford. "You have to play the role of an Egyptian captain and still come home at night and be the love interest of two women. He's so smooth. Everything he says is perfect.
Tony Sias, co-director of the All-City Musical production of "Aida," takes a moment during rehearsal to show cast members how to express passion for their savior princess, Aida.
John Kuntz, The Plain Dealer
"Radames knows what to say when he's around girls. Not that I'm not that way. But he doesn't know how to be friends with women. Every woman he encounters likes him more than a friend and falls in love with him."
The woman Radames falls for is Aida, the Nubian (in some versions, Ethiopian) princess taken prisoner by the Egyptians. Kenesha Terrell, who's playing the role in the All-City production, comes to the part with extensive experience onstage at Karamu House, the School of the Arts and elsewhere.
"She's a really, really strong woman," says Terrell, 17, a School of the Arts senior who'll study music therapy at the Berklee College of Music in Boston starting this fall. "She's very sure about herself and what she wants. She wants to free her people. She's really powerful and astute."
Terrell is inspired by two artists who triumphed in the role -- Leontyne Price in Verdi's opera and Headley, a Berklee graduate, in the musical's original 2000 Broadway production.
"So I'm following in their footsteps," Terrell says. "I know I have big shoes to fill."
And big voices to emulate.
"I'm used to singing in my head voice, but being a strong and powerful person, I have to embody that, take on that gut part," says Terrell.
Malone has heard Verdi's opera and enjoys it, but he believes the musical connects better with audiences in the 21st century.
"It's a relevant story today," he says. "It talks about love and how parents want certain things for you, but you have to stand up and say, 'This is what I want.' "
The love story in "Aida" initially disconcerted the teenage leads, who now take philosophical views of their romantic duties in the show.
Kenesha Terrell plays the title role in the All-City Musical production of "Aida." Of the character, she says, "She's very sure about herself and what she wants. She wants to free her people. She's really powerful and astute."
John Kuntz, The Plain Dealer
"To be completely honest, it would be very, very, very, very awkward to meet someone for the first time and be told you're the love interest and you have to kiss each other three or four times and then we're confined in a small space and die," says Malone, summing up the story. "If this was your life, it would be really challenging."
"I read the script, which is nice," says Terrell. "But you have to go onstage and lie together."
"I have to call him to my bed," adds Rivera. "That was so embarrassing."
One thing that more concerns than embarrasses the production's Amneris is the character's penchant for dressing up. In one of the show's extra-splashy numbers, "My Strongest Suit," Amneris and the women of the palace put on what amounts to an Egyptian fashion show.
"She basically covers herself by the way she dresses so people forget her deep emotions," says the diminutive Rivera. "She never shows her inner self.
"One of my costumes is itchy. It's very hard being beautiful."
What: The Cleveland School District presents the 14th annual All-City Musical, a production of the show with music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice and book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang. The production is directed by Tony Sias and Kimberly Brown and choreographed by Kevin Marr II and Jessica Oliver.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 31 and Saturday, June 1; 3 p.m. Sunday, June 2.
Where: Ohio Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, Cleveland.
Tickets: $15. Go to playhousesquare.org or call 216-241-6000.