Filichia Features: Going from Pod to Pod at JTF Atlanta

Filichia Features: Going from Pod to Pod at JTF Atlanta

They were always great, but this year, they were even better.

As I go from color-coded room to room - or pod to pod, as the rooms have been redubbed - my seventh consecutive festival yields more dynamic performances and greater choreography. The actors have made vivid impressions through outstanding performances. No wonder that at festival's end awards are bestowed in so many categories.

In the magenta pod there's The Pirates of Penzance JR.. The Gilbert and Sullivan masterpiece is an unabashed operetta. Director Kevin Quillinan could have cut the song "Poor Wandering One;" after all, every group abridges its JR. musical to only 15 minutes of highlights - so he needn't have included the score's most operetta-ish moment. No; Quillinan trusted the material and his courage was rewarded by a sterling performance by the girl who deftly sings the aria. When the lovely chorus behind her urges "Take heart!" we see that she already has.

Stephen Schwartz had told me the previous night "It's said that if you can get a child to see a musical before he's seven, there's a better chance that he'll become a theatergoer for life." Well, Schwartz has done his part by collaborating with bookwriter Anthony Stein, musicalizing Ezra Jack Keats's 36-page young readers book The Trip and turning it into Captain Louie JR.

In these times when families often move because a parent gets a better job in a faraway city, uprooted little children suffer. They often don't have the social skills to make new friends. That's Louie, who's as blue as the blue pod in which the show is performed.

Louie first opts for imaginary friends but then finds that the holiday of Halloween gives him a costume that allows him to be a different character and frees him from who he really is. The situation also gave Schwartz the chance to write "Trick or Treat," a nifty song that should be a standard heard on and around every Oct. 31.

While the cast from the FAPA Junior Company from Cumming, GA does the show to perfection, I note in the audience a much younger girl - perhaps a sister of a cast member - swaying and singing along. She may indeed be proving Schwartz's point.

I stay in the blue pod to see Marietta (GA) Sixth Grade Academy do Elf the Musical JR. Because wooden cubes are the closest any cast gets for scenery, the kids themselves become Santa's sleigh. They sit virtually moribund in the scene where the contraption won't fly because of a dearth of Christmas spirit, but, oh, do they literally rise to the occasion when the non-believers straighten out.

If you have a really talented young performer, Elf the Musical JR. gives him the chance to play a lead, for Buddy the Elf is nothing if not childlike.

Now comes another blue pod special: Madagascar JR. courtesy of P.S. 124 from New York City. The boy playing The Lion sang the line "I'm the King of New York" with such brio that even the Newsies would agree. This on also has stunning choreography. Should we be surprised? P.S. 124's program is under the auspices of Baayork Lee (A Chorus Line), who managed to engage three choreographers - Kyle Garvin, Francine Espiritu, and Hannah Balagot - to work with the kids at various times. (All this while she was directing a new production of Chorus Line to tour the country.)

Social Circle Theatre in the orange pod does Doctor Dolittle JR. I'm thrilled, for it's one of the strongest original scores ever written for a movie musical. The marvelous waltz "Fabulous Places" mentions 34 wondrous spots on the globe; considering how well the students do by it, Atlanta should now be included in the list.

In staging Guys and Dolls JR. in the lime pod, DMR Adventures of Charlottesville, VA takes on one of the biggest challenges for young performances and young audiences: The Ballad. Getting us to stand up for "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" is easy, but what about having a boy and girl sing "I've Never Been in Love Before"? It pays off, though, for the harmony is exquisite.

How much do kids want to be here? That's made clear after First Redeemer Church (also from Cumming, GA) does Singin' in the Rain JR. The lad who's Cosmo nimbly walks through the spaces between four girls rolling across the floor. He dances up a tsunami, too, which is impressive on its own, but wait! Later an adjudicator asks him to try a different dance move -- and he's willing to, but says "I have to get my crutch first, because I sprained my ankle really bad the other day." Well, sir, you could have fooled us considering the way you'd thrown yourself sans crutch into the numbers.

So many, many shows, so little, little time. How I wish I could sneak into the maroon pod where Stage Center's School of Performing Arts from Shreveport, LA is doing Godspell, Jr. I would love to see the unmitigated joy from both teachers and students when Schwartz, its composer and co-lyricist, saunters in to see them perform.

"They did a wonderful job," he tells me afterward.

Of course they did. It's standard procedure now at the Junior Theater Festival.

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You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at and Tuesday at . His book, The Great Parade: Broadway's Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at