Filichia Features: Juniors Perform Theater at the Festival

Filichia Features: Juniors Perform Theater at the Festival

The selfies have been taken, the gift shop has been perused, the impromptu dancing to “Under the Sea” has finished, and many a “Break a leg!” has been advised.

Now that 8:45 a.m. is near, everyone who’s come to perform this Saturday morn at Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta must get to one of 13 color-coded pods. The Center Players @ Arts of the Albemarle from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, all clad in spanking new black T-shirts that proclaim their Once On This Island, Jr., head into the Orange Pod.

(In other words, orange is the new black T-shirts’ home.)

After each 15-minute presentation, two or three adjudicators in each pod will give their opinions. Among them are Philip McAdoo, a Broadway performer in The Lion King; middle school teacher Derek Bowley and both Dogfight songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Adjudicators Lisa Mitchell, John Prignano and Cindy Ripley are MUCH too young to have the word “senior” attached to their names, but their expertise has respectively awarded each the titles of Senior Manager of Education and Outreach at Disney Theatrical Group; Senior Operations Officer of Music Theatre International and Senior Educational Consultant for iTheatrics.

While going first is never easy for any group, The Center Players are rarin’ to play. Although their show takes place in the French Antilles, its theme involving haves and have-nots is one that all kids have experienced from snobby schoolmates. While they sing the intoxicating Ahrens-Flaherty songs, they adhere to choreographer Holly Wright’s dictates to wiggle their hands and pose their legs in stances worthy of Bob Fosse. When a girl spins, the swish of her ponytail slaps a boy’s face, but that doesn’t stop him from singing his big note.

Sound sometimes bleeds from the ballroom next door, but fortuitously, as one song ends, the sound of great applause is heard from that room even before the audience here can give its own torrent of handclaps. That’s fine, for these kids deserve a double dose of applause. The lass playing TiMoune has a voice that’s as smooth as silk. When she sings that she’s “racing to places I was meant to reach,” you knows she means Junior Theater Festival and beyond.

Fifteen minutes speed by, and soon they’re at the last song, which concludes with “We tell the story” sung three times in a row. The performers pause for a few significant seconds after the second line. With a less informed audience, you’d hear handclapping, for many would assume the pause was actually show’s end. Those in this room, however, know the musical well and are aware enough to wait for the third line to finish before applauding. That’s proof positive that Once On This Island has reached classic status.


Chesapeake Children's Theatre. Photo: James Barker

Easton, MD is a full 70 miles away from Baltimore, but close enough for Chesapeake’s Children’s Theatre to celebrate its state’s largest city with Hairspray, JR. When its excellent Tracy sings “I know every step; I know every song,” this is truth-in-advertising. The lad playing Corny Collins was made to emcee; what a future he has helming network game shows. Kids do each gesture as swimmingly as the motion of the ocean.

The lasses are quite convincing when insisting “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” -- probably because they’ve made this argument to their own mothers. The Generation Gap will be with us for time immemorial, so Hairspray, despite welcoming us to the ‘60s, will never date.

Afterward director Kimberly Stevens explains to me, “Doing a challenging musical is a good theatrical exercise for the kids, and that’s what’s important.”

Next we get “non-traditional staging,” for no one flies in Disney's Peter Pan, JR. from Camelot Theatre Company of Griffin, GA. But the choreography is so winning that its absence isn’t a liability.

The trio of musicals seen thus far – although set in three startlingly different locales – all use the time-honored “freeze.” A character stops what he’s doing and holds the pose while one or two other performers continue speaking or singing. Thanks to the freeze, the audience gets to truly see the seriousness of purpose on each student’s face.

Joy Adkisson, whose daughters Keeley and Alanna respectively play Wendy and Tiger Lily, is certainly grateful. Adkisson says that “musical theater is a team sport – but one that’s much deeper than other team sports.”

Both daughters turn out to be sensational members of the team, as is the lad portraying Captain Hook. He crooks his finger -- props aren’t allowed at Junior Theater Festival -- and chorus members respond by miming the swabbing of decks or pulling ropes. But there’s no pretending when Captain Hook feeds one of his pirates to the unseen crocodile, for he actually t-h-r-o-w-s the kid across the room and onto the floor. The tossed boy continues performing without missing a hemidemisemiquaver of a beat. Ah, the resiliency of youth!

How they all concentrate! While they are undoubtedly happy to get applause after a number, they seem to ignore it, for all that’s on their minds is getting into position for the next song. At the end, however, there’s plenty of applause left in which they all sunnily bask.

The Gray Pod offers me an Into The Woods, Jr. with an astonishing Little Red Ridinghood who isn’t much more than a yardstick tall. But by the time she sings “I have no fear,” the audience has long been convinced of it.

The girl who plays Milky White “mooos” better than many a Maureen in Rent. What’s more, she doesn’t break character and crawls across the stage to get to every new scene. Another girl plays Ms. Wolf, which is fine; we needn’t read anything more into the situation than an animal’s wanting a culinary treat.

By the way, in 1993 when my book “Let’s Put on a Musical” was released, a critic castigated me for making kids believe that they could do Into The Woods. He thought it far too rigorous an assignment for children. Well, there are over 200 productions of Into The Woods, Jr. scheduled for the next 19 months, and while some may not turn out to be as splendid as the cutting offered here by DMR Adventures of Charlottesville, VA, time has proved that kids can indeed conquer the show.

Guys and Dolls, JR., courtesy of the Parkway Playhouse Junior in Burnsville, NC, has four sharp leads and a young ensemble member who has more musical theater genes in him than The Phantom of the Opera has had performances. In “If I Were a Bell, the girl playing Sarah Brown holds the final “dinggggg” for quite some time – not in the way (too many) kids do, holding a note for an eternity so that the audience will applaud and “Whoo!” No, she delivered the note as written, which isn’t an easy one to hold, given that the word ends with a harsh consonant.

Onto the Magenta Pod, where Mark Morgan of the Moorestown (NJ) Theater Company is intent on doing as much of Disney's My Son Punocchio, Jr. as possible. He’ll need every second of 15 minutes and worries he’ll go overtime, so he has an adjudicator tell the audience in advance to not interrupt with applause. It’s a tall order, given how much the crowd appreciates his show. Indeed, at one point an adjudicator is so moved that HE begins to clap before realizing his faux pas.

Because time’s an issue, the performers could have easily rushed and not stayed in synch with their pre-recorded tracks. Keeping their adrenalin in check is also a concern, and they admirably conquer both obstacles.

Not everything goes smoothly with those tracks. Samuel Echavorria, Jr., playing Bullfrog in Spotlight Theatre Productions of Sarasota’s Honk, Jr., finds that the music cuts out midway through his big song. You think that can flummox him? The kid soldiers on magnificently.

Now comes the final presentation of the day: Alpharetta, GA’s Performers Warehouse Godspell, Jr. Although it’s hard to go first, it’s harder to go last; many Magenta Podders have already left for lunch, so Performers Warehouse won’t face nearly as large an audience as its predecessors. “Because of this,” an adjudicator tells the audience before the show, “you must make up for the energy lost.”

Frankly, we applaud loudly and wildly not out of the goodness of our hearts, but because we’re really impressed. Performers Warehouse somehow makes us believe that going last was, to quote the show, “All for the Best.”

After each presentation, the kids immediately plop onto the floor and stare at the adjudicators. Eyes are hungry for the verdicts, be they good or bad. These kids will take their lumps if they must, as long as they can learn from what they hear.

Most of the time, however, adjudicators praise. “You had your own individuality” … “You proved one doesn’t need be huge or overblown to be a leading man” … “The false smiles weren’t there” … “You transported me to a really nice place” … “You didn’t steal focus from the others.” As this happens, there are grins of wonder of the kids’ faces, glances at each other to share the pride and nods of agreement that say “It’s true! We ARE good!”

Adjudicators occasionally show their esteem by asking a certain girl or boy to stand, which results in the crowd giving the child a personal round of applause. It happens with TiMoune, with Aaron Neighbors (that chorus boy I admired in Guys and Dolls, Jr.) and for the ENTIRE cast of Hairspray, Jr. Here a standing ovation means something else entirely: the performer stands while the audience stays seated and claps.

Says an adjudicator of one actor, “He’s in it to win it,” before cautiously and caustically adding “Some kids are TOO in it to win it” – meaning that they overact in a belief that everyone will approve. No, adjudicators aren’t here to give unmitigated hosannas. And so, we hear “Ensemble members mustn’t lose the art of storytelling” … “Make sure that when it isn’t your moment that you stay in character” … “Always experiment to see if there’s another way of delivering a line” … “Say your line BEFORE you exit so you don’t cheat yourself.”

The adjudicators ask questions, too, such as one who wants to know the age of that half-pint-sized Little Red Ridinghood. “Nine,” she says, which prompts another girl to add that she’s nine too -- which inspires another to say she’s only eight. Now usually kids this age claim to be older, but here in typical show-biz fashion, a girl is quick to establish that she’s younger than her peers.

Another adjudicator notes that the Into The Woods, Jr. Princes so superbly expressed the characters’ tortured emotions that he wished there’d been enough time for them to do “Agony.” “I almost stopped the show to make them sing it,” he jokes, causing Rapunzel’s Prince to immediately snap back “I know it!” -- ready to show what he can do and perhaps audition for a director who’s readying a professional production.

Yes, these Junior Theater Festival participants are planning for the future – and as a result of what they’ve done and learned here, they have bright futures ahead of them.

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at His upcoming book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available for pre-order at