Filichia Features: Junior Theater Heaven

Filichia Features: Junior Theater Heaven

The numbers just keep going nowhere but up-up-up.

Would that we meant The Dow Jones Industrial Average. No - we mean the attendance figures for the iTheatrics Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta.

Last weekend, this 14th edition of the confab for middle schoolers (and older) set another record. And although 6,529 attendees from 133 groups in 28 states and five foreign countries sounds extraordinary, chances are excellent that this record will be broken come January 17-19, 2020.

The festival has four specific aims. In alphabetical order:

"Celebrate!" Here like-minded tweens and teens can share their love of musical theater and exult in all its glories. Shirley Idzakovich's musical theater themed store is on site to purvey Jekyll & Hyde notebooks, Annie water bottles and much more - and she sells them.

"Educate!" After each group presents a 15-minute excerpt of a show from MTI's Jr. Musicals' catalogue, two adjudicators give advice, pointers and oh-so-gentle constructive criticism. Far more often than not there's plenty of understandable praise that gets the performers to "Motivate!" -- the third goal -- and do even better next year.

"Participate!" Do they ever. The quarter-hour presentations take place in any of 18 function rooms where seven or eight shows perform from 8:45 am to 12:45 pm on Saturday morning. About 200 or so people -- usually other performers who'll perform and their parents - participate, too, by witnessing and cheering.

The most popular title this year is Disney's and Cameron Mackintosh's Mary Poppins, Jr. which 15 school, after-school or weekend groups perform. Other Jr. editions of musicals are either now on Broadway (Aladdin), have been there ( Hairspray) or off-Broadway (Fame), London (Honk! ), film (Mulan), regional theater (My Son Pinocchio) or children's theater (Dear Edwina).

Before and after those, there are discussions and performances held in the vast 144,000 square-feet convention hall. What a pleasure to enter the enormous space and find it packed with kids who sing along with the show songs that are piped through speakers. If the kids have done the musical from which the ditty comes, they replicate their gestures and choreography right in the aisles.

Their lungs get a good workout, too, for any time a singer holds a note for an inordinate length of time, their screams that last longer than those heard at horror films.

Here theatergoing isn't merely sedentary. The kids don't only give standing ovations to Luca (Newsies) Padovan and Isabella ( School of Rock) Russo - teens not far (if at all) from their own age. They also jolt out of their seats after they see their peers perform. These spectators are very aware of how much rehearsal, trial-and-error and work went into the presentations.

So many kids leap to their feet after virtually every number that they undoubtedly burn off many of the calories they'd accumulated from those heavenly $3 cupcakes set up in the ad hoc lobby food court that's fancifully named Beauty and the Feast.

Part of the fun is seeing all the musical theater-themed T-shirts printed in more colors than you'd find in Finian's Rainbow. Kids who are doing Legally Blonde have "Delta Nu" shirts to honor Elle's sorority. Many backs of shirts have the names of everyone in the cast. The one for Elf, Jr. has many names under "Nice List" and a few under "Naughty List."

The latter surprised me so I asked a wearer to explain.

"Those," she said, suppressing a giggle, "are the names of our teachers."

In truth, one of JTF's greatest thrills is witnessing the love and respect the kids have for their teachers. They know who got them here, both by virtue of creating a performance and raising the money to pay for the trip.

Many parents come along, too, as is proved by the many "Drama Mama" and "Proud Papa" T-shirts. In an era of two working parents who don't always have enough time to devote to their children, JTF makes up for that.

People often say "You had to be there" after telling of a funny experience. Well, I say "You had to be there" to savor all of the wonders of iTheatrics Junior Theater Festival. In case you missed the 2019 edition, we'll tell you more of what you're missing in the upcoming weeks.

Do check in early March to register for 2020. Said Marty Johnson, the company's director of education, "This one sold out in 48 hours."

Read more Filichia Features .


That will probably be the only figure that ever goes down for the Junior Theater Festival.

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at and Tuesday at . He can be heard most weeks of the year on