When Big Voices, Big Confidence Count

Inside a cramped practice room, high school senior Nick Cirillo gives a pep talk to a shy freshman in baggy pants who is minutes away from auditioning for his first high school musical.

The audition song, "I'm a Mean Ole Lion," is a showy tune for a larger-than-life character who hides cowardice behind a fa├žade of bluster.

The freshman seems dwarfed by his task. His delivery is tuneless. He mumbles the lyrics without enthusiasm. Cirillo is working hard to transform this mouse into a roaring lion.

"Just get into it, and add a growl, otherwise I'll be very disappointed," he told the freshman. "Whether you can sing the song or not, they will remember you if you get into it. Just snap and be the lion. That's musical theater. You can make up for anything just by being into it. So have fun!"

The coaching has mixed results. Cirillo gets some snapping fingers and a hesitant hiss, but not the roaring lion performance he was hoping for.

With a sigh and an encouraging smile, he hit the play button on the boombox again and implored, "Try it again!"

As a veteran of the Westfield High School theater department, Cirillo is mentoring a group of uncertain first-timers. The teens are all auditioning for the role of the Lion in Westfield High School's production of "The Wiz," a Tony-award winning black musical based on L. Frank Baum's classic, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."

Desire and Passion

"I started off when I was a freshman auditioning for shows and not getting the roles that I really wanted, but you just need to make a name for yourself," he said. "I've wanted to be an actor all my life. Now I'm in the position where I'm a legitimate contender for the roles. I don't really fear anything. I'm not driven by fear. I'm driven by desire-- desire to do theater with my life. Desire to do that. Just completely passionate about that."

Cirillo exudes confidence and leadership. He's so certain he'll be working on Broadway someday that his e-mail address is "broadwaykid." Today, he'll settle for the role of Lion.

"I'm a big guy and the lion's a big character. He's very loud and in people's faces and then he's always showing his loudness," Cirillo said. "That's kind of like me, I like to be loud and everyone always knows I'm in the room."

In the auditorium -- the waiting room for all the wannabe Ozians -- almost all the senior boys are longing for the same role.

When Hairy is Handy

Nate Peterson, a tall, solemn-looking boy with a deadpan delivery, is hoping he'll be chosen for the powerhouse character.

"The Lion's popular because it's the funniest character," he said. "Tinman's the tap dancing guy, and the Scarecrow is the slightly metrosexual, feminine guy."

Garrett Henson, considered a "triple threat" by many of the teens, had a more straightforward explanation.

"He's such a kooky character. He's such a coward but that's what you love about him. He's cool," Henson said.

Despite the tough competition, Peterson said he has qualifications that the other boys lack.

"I have an excellent growl. I am very good at having a tail, I've had one before. I'm also quite hairy," he admitted. "I think I would do excellently with the costume stuff. I'm used to intense temperatures due to all the hair."

But if he doesn't nail a lead, what is his runner up role?

"I put Toto down as my list of characters. I'm feeling lots of pressure," Peterson said. "It's like a safety college. Toto is my safety college."

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