The orchestra stops, and all eyes focus on 16-year-old Jessica Watkins when she walks into the ballroom, dressed in a beautiful gown with magnificently coifed hair.

The attention on the Eleanor Roosevelt High School junior is really directed at Cinderella, the title role she is playing in the Cheverly Young Actors' Guild's production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's musical.

However conceited it may sound, Watkins says, the moment the world stops to admire her is her favorite part in a show in which she's had the lead role twice -- including when she joined the Cheverly Young Actors' Guild (CYAG) five years ago.

Beginning today and lasting until April 12, Watkins and about 80 other young, local actors ages 5 to 18 will perform "Cinderella" at the Publick Playhouse in Cheverly.

Since 1995, the nonprofit theater arts group run by parent volunteers has put on one show annually, generally traditional shows like "Fiddler on the Roof," "Peter Pan," "Wizard of Oz," "Oliver!" and "Annie." Current president Joani Horchler formed CYAG with another Cheverly parent (who has since moved away) because they were tired of driving their kids to Rockville and Bethesda to take part in good theater training programs.

"Why spend so much time on the Beltway, we thought, when we could spend that time developing our own children's theater program?" Horchler said.

The program has succeeded in its mission. CYAG gives preference to county residents but holds open auditions for all of its shows. Because the group's philosophy is to give all children the opportunity to take the stage, each show is double cast to allow more people to participate and have lead roles.

Some kids have flown onstage as part of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Peter Pan." The organization hired the same company that flew Cathy Rigby (as Peter Pan) on Broadway to operate cables at the Publick Playhouse. A few of the group's alumnae have landed professional roles and majored in theater in college.

Ironically, word has gotten out about the elaborate productions and high-level theater training -- and now some children from outside the county have begun traveling long distances to participate.

It takes 45 minutes for Sarah Brewer, a 15-year-old high school freshman from Fairhaven in Anne Arundel County to get to rehearsals at the Cheverly United Methodist Church. She has been in neighborhood plays, but "Cinderella" is Brewer's first show with the group.

She says she looks forward to coming to the three weekly rehearsals because she learns a lot from Chris McGriff, the energetic and dedicated Howard University junior who has directed the last three shows.

"He's so professional. He has a different way of teaching, and it's a lot of fun," says Brewer, who plays a stepsister, Minerva.

Many of Brewer's new friends have had parts in several of CYAG's productions. Cinderella's fairy godmother is the fourth role for Reba Watkins, a 15-year-old high school sophomore from Cheverly who is not related to Jessica Watkins.

"It's a great experience for aspiring actors and actresses because [McGriff] shows us methods that can apply to other shows. He not only trains us to be good at what we're doing now but also to be a better actor and apply that level of talent elsewhere," Watkins said.

Her role as fairy godmother reflects her view of life.

"I turn a pumpkin into a carriage, mice into horses, Cinderella into this beautiful girl. Yeah, I do a lot," Watkins said. "Then I let her know that impossible things are definitely possible."

Admission to "Cinderella" is $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors and $6 for children 12 and younger. Show times are 7:30 p.m. today through Sunday and April 10-12, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and April 12 at the Publick Playhouse, 5445 Landover Rd., Cheverly. 301-277-1710.

Cinderella (Jessica Watkins) is helped into a wedding dress by her stepsisters (Brittanie Potter, left, and Sarah Brewer) during a Cheverly Young Actors' Guild rehearsal of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Cinderella."Costume designer Doug Gowin holds up one of Cinderella's glass slippers during a rehearsal.