In two hours, Jake Chapman will step out onto a brightly lit stage to help bring alive the classic "Guys & Dolls" musical for an auditorium full of paying patrons.

The curtain will part, setting into motion the story of a high-rolling gambler who woos an uptight evangelizer on a bet and ends up falling in love. At the end, patrons will holler and whistle.

At this moment, though, the Ironwood Ridge High School sophomore is backstage, preoccupied with stenches.

"Does anyone have, like, perfume or something?" he beseeches his fellow cast members, flinging out his arms out for emphasis. "Because all my stuff smells like fish."

A few people take note of his predicament, which is the result of a malodorous prop cigar rotting near his bag.

The half-costumed cast member who is busy chasing a child around tables, though, keeps playing chase. Another student keeps trying to figure out whether she's had anything to eat all day. She remembers having had a little bit of whipped cream earlier.

The cast members of "Guys & Dolls" are a green bunch. Their sights are not set on the jolt of adrenaline they will feel when their patrons rise from their seats in loud applause. Many of them don't know that jolt.

This is Ironwood Ridge's first full-fledge musical, and this is April 1 - opening night.

As Teresa Irwin, the cast's musical director, remarked earlier in the day, "Until you've experienced it once, you're clueless. For the majority, they're not going to realize the impact it's going to have on them emotionally until tonight, then they're going to be hooked."

For now, pre-show tasks offer steady fodder for goofball comedy. There are teenage guys applying makeup - "I'm a delicate beige" - and there are rancid stage props that need overseeing.

"Keep it with you at all times," Chapman says, wagging his finger at the student wearing his hat. "It smells like fish."

The cast's hats, along with the rest of their "Guys & Dolls" costumes, came largely from Tucson thrift shops this year.

When you're a cast member in your school's first full-fledged musical, you don't have a well-stocked costume closet to raid.

Instead, you set off for Fourth Avenue with your own money and a 1920s primer on the fashions of New York City gamblers and evangelists, which your drama teacher provided. You cross your fingers that your selections will survive a critique at school and not get turned away because "this is too modern a color."

That's how the cast of "Guys & Dolls" assembled their costumes - from scratch.

It's how they assembled their sets, too.

The plywood building fronts that are hanging amid stage curtains, ready for their entrance, came from virgin lumber, paint and canvas, bought with a $1,000 grant from the Tucson chapter of the Theater League.

There were no stale backdrops with urban skylines or harvest moons to cannibalize this time around.

Actually, if you look back three years, the whole fine arts program at Ironwood Ridge was assembled from scratch.

The school opened at the beginning of the 2001-02 school year. The fine arts building didn't open until November.

Until then, choir and drama rehearsals took place in a science classroom, where the atmosphere was decidedly "for science," Irwin said.

The school had only freshmen and sophomores the first year.

Not wanting to perform on the cafeteria stage - "too much like elementary school" - the first batch of fine arts students staged a progressive winter show. It progressed from the band room to the orchestra room.

The onlookers who couldn't find spots in the packed indoors planted themselves outside and peered through windows.

By March, the artistically inclined students of Ironwood Ridge had an auditorium. They performed a modest middle school version of "Pirates of Penzance."

That musical involved a simple set - one side was a beach, the flipside was a house.

This year, Ironwood Ridge got its first batch of seniors, and decided to go for the big-time in musical productions.

The scripts and scores for "Guys & Dolls" cost $2,000, but that was paid for by profits from the pirate musical and tax credit donations.

Getting actors to dedicate their time to the school's first musical was the next task.

"There are lots of seniors who wanted to do the musical but couldn't because of jobs," said cast member David Rupley. "It is a job."

Of course, there were the standard two-hour rehearsals every weekday for three months, which got longer as the performance neared. Then there was the all-day marathon rehearsal during Rodeo Break.

But the cast members' responsibilities extended farther, cast member Annamaria Hairston said.

"You have to practice all your lines not just after school, but at night before you go to bed, so they will be fresh in your mind for the next day," she said.

The 16-member orchestra and four-member tech crew worked hard, too.

"I actually never realized how much work it is behind," said Kelli Iannarino, who had to learn to work the complicated sound system. "A lot of people don't get as much credit as they deserve."

But all that work does eventually lead to opening night, and that's where "Guys & Dolls" crew is, now. In less than an hour, the audience will arrive.

The auditorium stage displays several towering renditions of New York building fronts - one with a see-through window and a working door.

The 28 cast members are hiding behind these edifices, waiting for their cue to burst out to center stage and practice their bows.

"Here's the order of where you are going to come out and which direction you're going to go," Irwin announces.

The wired-up actors take turns assuming the spotlight and then receding into the scenery. A few look out on an imaginary crowd and mime kisses or raise victory fists. One practices dance moves. Most focus on bows only partly.

"Don't talk," Irwin suggests, as she tries to issue stage directions.

Then more urgently, "Please zip it. I'm yelling."

Most of the young performers onstage have never been in a musical before.

Some of them "got the bug" as eighth graders, according to Irwin, while attending a dress rehearsal of a musical at Canyon del Oro High School. Few of them know the buzz of hearing spirited whistles and thundering applause after a show gone exceptionally well.

Few know to hunger for that buzz, and to leave goofball comedy behind while shooting for it.

Ordinarily, according to Irwin, "the older ones tell the younger ones, 'Don't behave like that,' and because they want to please the older ones, they don't."

As patrons begin filling the seats of Ironwood Ridge's auditorium, the cast huddles together backstage for some voice warm-ups - "me-oh-me-oh-me-oh-me-oh-me" and "bumble bumble bumble bee."

Then the big moment arrives.

"We're excited tonight," Irwin tells the crowd. "This is the very first musical put on in our auditorium."

Then Chapman is onstage in his fishy hat, playing the goofy gambler Benny. Before long, he's joined by Nathan, a shady businessman, Adelaide, a chronically ill nightclub performer, and a stageful of other amusing souls.

The three-hour performance includes some missed lines, curtain mishaps and microphone problems, but the show goes on.

And then there's the bow.

The audience erupts in a standing ovation. There's whistling, name yelling, and jolts of adrenaline. The stars take their bows, inspiring greater enthusiasm, and the orchestra picks up its pace.

Backstage, the cast lets out an elated yell.

"That was crazy," someone exclaims.

"It was," says Wyatt Campbell, who is returning to Earth from three hours playing Nathan. "It was fun, though."

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