Filichia Features: Junior Theater Festival ’13 Begins!

Filichia Features: Junior Theater Festival ’13 Begins!

Atlanta lost a big NFL football game this past weekend, but it certainly emerged victorious in musical theater.

The eighth annual Junior Theater Festival once again took over the Renaissance Waverly Hotel in Vinings, Georgia. Last year, around 3,000 tweens and teens attended; this year, 4,200 youngsters will perform 15-minute excerpts from the musicals they did this fall or will mount this spring. They range from Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School in Lynchburg, Virginia (Mulan, Jr.) to Youth Theatre Company’s Junior Theatre in Walnut Creek, California (The Pirates of Penzance, Jr.) Meanwhile, Studio D Productions of Griffin, Georgia will have its 15 minutes of Fame, Jr.

On the Friday night before their Saturday morning performances, the kids can’t wait to get to the 4,500-seat MTI ShowSpace Theatre for orientation, so they take the stairs two at a time. In contrast, their teachers more often opt for the escalator -- although one lad whose much-bandaged foot is buttressed with crutches joins them. When the boy disembarks, the way he grimaces suggests that the injury is a recent one. But do you think he was going to miss this festival?

Mark Morgan’s here with his Moorestown Theater Company, ensconced in a New Jersey town that was once selected by Money magazine as the best place to live in America. I’d like to think that the Moorestown Theater Company is a reason why.

Newly married Cody and Santana Carlton have brought Seussical, Jr. from CharACTers Theatrics in Gadsden, Alabama. “It’s our first year here,” he says, “but it won’t be our last.” Says she, “We learned about this from the MTI website, and we’re so glad we did.” Cody adds, “Everyone’s so welcoming and have made the kids feel comfortable. I haven’t stopped smiling since I’ve been here.”


MTI ShowSpace Lounge

Near the MTI ShowSpace is a Newsies graffiti wall – arguably the first such wall in history that offers no profanity. Instead, we see “Be happy” … “Don’t be afraid of a challenge” … I want to be the first person in Wisconsin to direct Newsies.” But my personal favorite is “Alan Menken loves Kayla Lowry” -- which was signed by Kayla Lowry.

Before the welcoming speeches by Timothy Allen McDonald and Marty Johnson of iTheatrics and Nick Manos, president of Theater of the Stars, kids are in the lobby doing impromptu performances of “King of New York” and “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” While the Billboard Top 100 shows that “Die Young” and “F**ckin Problems” (sic) are currently popular, these kids prefer “Popular” from Wicked. When it comes over the sound system and Kristin Chenoweth gets to the word “flounce,” many punctuate the music with an “Ooooh!”

And they’re not the only ones who relish show music; the teachers and parents are often seen bobbing their heads in time to many a song. That prompts the kids to pull in the adults into their dances. Although the adults are initially reluctant, they eventually give in and enjoy themselves. The Junior Theater Festival makes kids can feel grown-up and adults feel young again.


JTF All Stars 2013

If The Guinness Book of World Records starts a category for Greatest Variety of T-Shirts, it should send a representative here. Most shirts have the names of musicals on their fronts, but some even list all cast members on their backs. A Seussical, Jr. cast has its characters’ names embossed on the back (Gertrude; Sour Kangaroo), much in the way that athletes have their names on the backs of their jerseys. Some T-shirts are bisected by a sash that status “Freddie G Alumni,” citing teachers who had already been honored at previous festivals.


Student Performance at JTF

Most students and adults, however, wear shirts that sport the “Junior Theater Festival” logo. They come in 11 different colors, which represent the 11 pods to which the 82 schools and after-school programs have been assigned to perform. That’s up from 64 in 2012. How many businesses grow by 40% in a single year?

On Saturday morning, it’s time for serious fun and serious business. “No coughing while the other kids are performing,” a teacher sternly tells his brood. “It may be a competition, but we play fair.”

All the pods are held in various brightly-lit ballrooms, so kids don’t take to the stage but to the rug. These rooms weren’t built for musical theater, so the acoustics aren’t good. That, however, teaches kids to project.

The festival employs non-traditional casting. A girl plays the rabbi in Company J’s Fiddler on the Roof, Jr. while a female Frederick appears in CW Davis Middle School’s The Pirates of Penzance, Jr. Could Gilbert and Sullivan have ever envisioned that youngsters in Flowery Branch, Georgia would be doing their musical 133 years after they premiered it? If G&S could see this, they might be moved enough to resume speaking to each other.

The most popular title, however, is The Little Mermaid, Jr. No fewer than 20 programs will offer it, including Jeter Backyard Theater from Pittsburgh. Its techie goes to play the pre-recorded music CD, but only a hemisemidemiquaver of a note blares before there’s sudden silence. The kids hear the note, but don’t move; they’re savvy enough to know what a false start is.

The mistake is rectified, and the kids perform under a Junior Theater Festival banner that states, “Celebrate, educate, motivate, participate.” The way that the boys confidently display pointed and crisp gestures before they put their arms akimbo prove that they’re doing all of the above.


Jeter Backyard Theater Presents The Little Mermaid Jr.

When the girls sing the joke-filled “She’s in Love,” the crowd responds with precious few laughs. Not that lyricist Glenn Slater didn’t write amusingly, but the audience has heard this score scores of times and knows every word. Instead, the crowd occasionally laughs at a move the kids make – although not remotely in a scornful way. These are affectionate laughs of surprise that the kids have unpredictably executed a move that’s of Broadway-caliber.

Quite often the crowd is distracted, as wild applause bleeds from the room next door. We can’t help wonder what we’re missing, but no one can see all the shows (more’s the pity).

Still, there’s plenty to see here. Generously long ponytails swish from left to right and back again in tune to the music. Unexpected handstands get a hand. Note the little girl who’s already learned that when she delivers her one line that she’ll steal the scene. Two girls’ eyes connect and the smiles they give each other say, “This is going well, isn’t it?”  One boy telegraphs with his eyes to a girl “You’ve never done that better!” Best of all, everyone cares.

Truth to tell, in some presentations, kids can’t always reach their notes while others don’t hit them with pin-point accuracy. But remember that Terrence McNally in The Lisbon Traviata said that Maria Callas was occasionally too sharp when she sang. Why should we expect more from mere middle- and high-schoolers?


Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS) performs Godspell Jr.

On the other hand, Theatre under the Stars from Houston does Godspell, and bless the Lord, my soul, these kids can sing! When the actor playing Jesus asks a question, all the hands rise in military-like precision. More astonishingly, Godspell’s director is a student, and so is its choreographer.

There’s plenty of nuts-and-bolts education going on here, too, for most musicals teach good lessons. How many kids in Bravo!’s brilliant Once on This Island, Jr. have heard their parents complain, “Wait till you have kids of your own; then you’ll know what it’s like!” Here, the message is conveyed in a less didactic way. The song “Timoune” has step-parents remind their step-daughter how much they’ve done for her and that their advice shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.

At each performance’s end, the applause and “whoos” are pungent.  Ear doctors claim that we lose a tiny bit of hearing each time we hear a loud noise, but we’ll take the risk. We’re also glad that the lights are up full force, for the bright wattage allows us to better see the kids’ smiles at their curtain calls. On second thought, if there were a sudden blackout, we’d probably be able to see their faces beaming at us, anyway.

Bigger smiles come when the adjudicators offer praise. These 22 judges include actor Bryan Batt, who played a cat both in Cats and Jeffrey; Dean McFlicker, an NBC vice-president; and MTI’s senior operations officer John Prignano. Their compliments abound (“You let us know where to look” … “There was fun, but no forced fun”) but so does their advice: “Drop your jaw so your tongue will be freer” … “Shimmy upstage when you’re upstaged” … “Write a letter as your character, as if your character is communicating with a good friend. That way, you’ll discover so much more about the person you’re playing.” The cast of Ohlook Performing Arts of Grapevine, Texas which did Honk, Jr. nods enthusiastically when told “Find that element that makes you an animal. Make the audience immediately say ‘Oh, there’s the cat!’ or ‘He’s the frog!’”

The adjudicators have questions, such as “How many of you call yourselves dancers?” Many a hand shoots up, although one lad raises his only halfway, and then sways it from side to side to admit that his abilities are so-so. Some kids are brutally honest when asked “Who was disappointed not to get the lead in this show?” They immediately raise their hands, unafraid of being thought ego-centric. Hey, let’s get real. And yet, some are mollified when told “Be the star of the ensemble, for even if you’re on one side of the stage, you’ll be seen by the people who are sitting on that side.”

And yet, after the adjudicators’ praise comes “One tiny thing” or “One little note” or “If I may nit-pick.” They gingerly give criticism and avoid any heavy artillery that would bruise egos or dash dreams. Gentle reminders include “You smiled as if you were supposed to, and not because you were having fun” and “You can’t assume that the audience knows the story.” The kids’ stoic faces show that they can take constructive criticism. Yes, hosannas hit the spot, but everyone worth his salt wants to learn so that he can improve.

So when one adjudicator who’s just witnessed a lackluster presentation starts with “If you had to do it again, what would you do differently?” the kids frankly offer a deluge of evaluations: “Vocal timing” … “More on key” … “Gestures in sync from the ensemble” … “Coming in with the music.” How brave of them to fully admit their mistakes without beating themselves up. What’s done is done, and here comes the future.

By 12:30, all 82 units have shown their wares. Now kids head to the MTI ShowSpace, where musical theater selections continually play over the loudspeaker. Often a kid who’s walking will suddenly stop, do a dance step or two, and then, with the urge satisfied, return to regular walking.

And yet, some kids haven’t had enough of performing and keep their shows alive by reprising them in the aisle. And lo and behold, there’s the lad I saw earlier on crutches – but he’s now carrying them while walking under his own power. Well, haven’t we all heard about the healing power of theater?
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You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at His upcoming book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available for pre-order at

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