Filichia Features: On Stage at Junior Theater Festival ‘14

Filichia Features: On Stage at Junior Theater Festival ‘14

In a way, it’s the musical theater equivalent of speed dating.

You do get to see as many as eight musicals in four hours – but only in a manner of speaking. The 93 schools and academies that have come to Atlanta to appear in the Junior Theater Festival perform 15-minute excerpts from the musicals they’ve either produced this past fall or will mount this upcoming spring.

Well, there is that show-business adage “Always leave them wanting more.” And the shows I witness on this super-busy Saturday morning do make me want to see the entire shows. What talent! What devotion! What virtuosity!

All right, things don’t get started quite on time. The Hub Performing Arts School from Lubbock, Texas isn’t here yet for its 8:30 a.m. start. And yet, the hundreds I see in the house aren’t tapping feet, consulting watches, rolling eyes or muttering “Where are they?” For one thing, the teachers whose groups will follow Hub have plenty to go over with their own students before they perform. For another, kids are happily meeting kids from other organizations from other parts of the country. Yes, Florida State and Auburn were bitter rivals for the NCAA Championship Game a few weeks back, but that doesn’t mean that the students from Florida (Carousel Theatre Productions in Leesburg) can’t be friends with the kids from Alabama (CharACTers Children’s Theatre in Rainbow City).

When the performers from Hub finally do arrive 12 minutes late, they don’t get scornful looks from the assembled, but genuine cheers. If only the rest of the world could be in this generous a mood when people are tardy!

Hub’s Seussical, Jr. sports marvelous voices and dance steps delivered with Rockette-like precision. Pigtails fly in the wind -- more pigtails than you’d find on Farmer Brown’s farm.

How nice, too, to see a little peanut of a girl playing Jo-Jo while a tall, much older lad is Horton. What if these two kids weren’t in the program together? Picture them walking down the street from opposite directions, and when they got almost face-to-face, they’d simply continue walking and ignore each other, for young she and older he each would assume that they had nothing in common. Musical theater has shown them that they indeed have.

After each presentation, there’s adjudication. For those who think that Tim Federle has shown up here just to sell his two great NATE books, no, he’s working.

“When you start off with such polish this early in the morning” he tells the Hub-bers, “it sets a high standard. I feel like I’m one of those easy teachers who always gives A’s.”

Kristen M. Singer is enthusiastic about Whoville’s Mayor and his Wife: “You run the town so well that I want to move there.” Everyone laughs because it’s a good joke, but the smiles on the Mayor’s and Missus’ faces and the bubbly laughs they give out show that way down deep, they knew they were good, but to be validated in public makes it sweeter.

Singer does have some advice, however. “Watch out for your vowels. Many people tend to put an ‘H’ in front of each one, and that’s bad when you’re singing ‘Oh, Horton’ – because ‘Ho Horton’ is something else entirely.”

Next up is Moorestown Theatre Company of New Jersey with Willy Wonka, Jr. Director Mark Morgan nods when a certain choreographic move goes off particularly well. After “Pure Imagination,” I see a man from First Stage in Theatre Company in Huntington, West Virginia raise his hands to applaud, but just before he’s about to unleash an enthusiastic handclap, he stops mid-air. Now he remembers the announcement made beforehand that everyone should hold his applause for the end … but that’s so hard to remember and follow when kids are as talented as the Moorestown bunch.

Afterward, Singer praises the accents which were “totally believable and never faltered.” Federle centers on the ensemble, and suspects that the kids did something the pros do: “We make up names for our characters to make them more real,” says the veteran of four Broadway productions. The kids nod faster and more vigorously than bobble-head dolls in an earthquake.

I switch rooms to see The P94M All-Stars from New York. These 10 autistic kids attend what’s also known as The Spectrum School – an acronym for Special Populations Educated Creatively Through Rigor, Understanding and Motivation.

Their show is Aladdin, Jr., and they’re rarin’ to go. Rules be damned, these kids get applause after every song, because they’re so successful at what they’re doing: no dropped cues, no uncomfortable silences and every well-taught gesture remembered.

Among the happiest is Steven Tennen, the executive director of ArtsConnection, whose teachers have worked with the kids. When one adjudicator says, “You really helped each other!” Tennen beams. “That’s it, that’s it,” he says mostly to himself, head nodding in agreement.

After the kids are told “You sang with your heart,” they’re asked two questions. “How does it feel to have the whole room clapping for you?” gets them to give a nice enough response, but “How many of you want to be actors?” spurs all ten to thrust hands in the air. Who can blame them? They’ve entered, to quote the song they’ve just sung, a whole new world.

They’re not the only ones who want to live their lives on stage. Look at the passion that the performers from the Naples Performing Arts Center of Florida display when they sing “Bring on tomorrow! We can’t wait!” from Fame, Jr. Every time they take a dance step forward, they seem to be saying, “I’m this much closer to Broadway. Only 746 miles to go!”

Of course, I go to see the CCM (as in Cincinnati Conservatory of Music) Preparatory Department because I’m the school’s critic-in-residence. Lord knows how many of these middle and high schoolers I’ll someday see on the mainstage. Am I looking at the next Ashley Brown, whom I fondly remember as a sophomore killing with “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide long before she was the first Mary Poppins on Broadway?

“One! Two! Three! Four!” says a cast member and the troupe is ready to do Xanadu, Jr. Alas, the techie who’s running sound is having a problem with the CD. All he can deliver is silence – and a brooding silence falls over the audience matched by the concern on each face. All sympathize, partly because they know how they’d feel if it happened to them. Indeed, those who haven’t yet performed know it may still happen to them.

A painfully long half-minute passes before a note of music bleats. However, the cast doesn’t spring into action because it recognizes that as the start of a song to be done later. The techie tries again, and third time’s the charm. As the kids begin to dance, the audience erupts in a loud, supportive cheer enhanced by plenty of handclaps. After the number, however, the applause is for the kids’ on-stage achievement and not because they braved out the delay.

Onto Godspell, Jr., courtesy of the Riverside Children’s Theatre of Vero Beach, Florida. Yes, the Jr. edition of the show takes the understandable liberty of dropping the line “Let’s have some wine!” but the kids get their high from performing. Oh, bless the Lord, my soul, they’re marvelous! “We Beseech Thee” is an extra-special success, because the soloist adds a high-reaching melisma that any pro would be proud to deliver. When the kids sing the word “Love!” dozens of times, they’re accurately describing what they’ve brought to Godspell, Jr.

Onto Into The Woods, Jr. from The Biz (sic), The Academy of Musical Theatre of Avon, IN. Here, when Little Red Ridinghood enters, it’s truth-in-advertising; the middle-schooler is indeed little – until she opens her mouth during that opening sequence and shows a strong voice. Many in the house laugh when The Witch punctuates “You should see my nectarines” with four elbow thrusts into the Baker’s side. Yup, we’ve all seen the video and Bernadette Peters doesn’t make those moves, so we all appreciate something new, something different.

Of the eight shows I see, The Columbus Children’s Theatre’s The Little Mermaid, Jr. sets the record for the quickest standing ovation. The “Under the Sea” sent everyone over the moon, including the adjudicators. Now that lunchtime has arrived, we hope that “Les Poissons” won’t be on the menu.

And so the performing part of the weekend reaches the end of its first phase. But there’s still a day and half of festival left. More to come, more to come …

You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at His new book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks – a Very Opinionated History of the Broadway Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award is now available at