Around the middle of Saturday’s performance of “Showtime,” the annual Lawrence High School extravaganza that blends choral music, pop tunes and dance, a red Pontiac GTO will drive onto the stage to the tune of the 1960s hit “GTO.” Several dancing mechanics will begin working on the car, and the crowd will go wild. And senior Alex O’Brien, who will be behind the wheel, will have a big smile on his face.
In early performances, O’Brien’s scene has been the hit of the show, his castmates say. He’s so happy, so positive and such a natural performer that it’s hard for the crowd not to cheer, they note. “It’s pretty cool,” the 17-year-old O’Brien said Friday, as he and his classmates rehearsed at the school ahead of the weekend performances.
O’Brien has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that causes the muscles to deteriorate and has left him unable to walk. In the show, the cardboard-and-foam car fits over his wheelchair, which he rides onto the stage. With the push of a button, O’Brien can lift his wheelchair in the air, making it look like the mechanics are jacking the car so they can work underneath it.
O’Brien noted that when he was first diagnosed with the disease, most people who had it didn’t survive past their high school graduation. But thanks to medical advances, people with Duchenne muscular dystrophy now often live well into adulthood. After high school, O’Brien plans to study aerospace engineering at Kansas University. He says he’d like to one day work in the aerospace industry in Wichita because it’s not too far from home.
Despite his disability, O’Brien has never shied away from enjoying his education and extracurricular activities to the fullest. He has long been a staple at school dances, where he has led the conga line. He joined the choir in seventh grade.
O’Brien has been going to school with many of his classmates for so long that they don’t see his disability; they’re much more likely to notice his upbeat personality and quirky sense of humor.
“He’s the most positive person at the school,” said LHS choir director Dwayne Dunn. “He doesn’t let people come into class grumpy.” Classmates have chosen O’Brien to be a “choir officer,” who greets and helps cheer up his fellow students. They look forward to occasions like O’Brien’s “Fist Bump Fridays.”
Plus, Dunn added: “He’s a fine singer. He has a great little tenor voice.”
The idea for the car act was sprung when O’Brien’s mom approached some senior boys to see if they’d be interested in doing a “Showtime” scene with her son. O’Brien came up with the GTO concept himself. When other cast members were asked if they’d be willing to perform in an act involving O’Brien in a car, they couldn’t sign up fast enough.
“It may be the fan favorite,” said senior Tucker Sutter, who plays one of the mechanics in the act and went to junior high with O’Brien. “He’s always really positive, really funny. He’s just always putting people in a good mood.”
“He definitely fits in,” Sutter added. “He fits in like every other choir member.”