Filichia Features: Three Days with Talented Kids

Filichia Features: Three Days with Talented Kids

Saisha Wesley, Kiana Carbone, Liana Zaino, Maginnis Buckley, Aneesah Abdur-Razzaq. Photo by: RAY LITTERIO PHOTOGRAPHY


August is the month when kids who have been enrolled in summer theater arts programs show what they have learned in June and July.

New Jersey School of the Dramatic Arts Kids on Stage! shows its skill via Honk! JR. It’s composer George Stiles and bookwriter-lyricist Anthony Drewe’s fanciful take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling.

Before the show, Beth Baur, the troupe’s co-director, takes the stage to tell the parents in the audience “You have beautiful children who have enhanced our lives.” She notes that not only is the company enjoying its tenth anniversary, but that 14-year-old Soula Garcia is celebrating it, too. “She actually started with us when she was four,” says Baur, astonished at how much time has passed and so quickly.

Garcia’s decade of practice and devotion shows. She expertly plays The Cat, who’s Honk’s villain. The role is usually assigned to a male, although there’s no reason why a girl can’t play it.

In fact, the lead role – the “duckling” simply known as Ugly – is usually played by a man or boy, too. Here, however, Liana Zaino has the part, because this summer, at least, boys are in short supply in Bloomfield, New Jersey.

Thus the song that Ugly’s sibling-ducklings tauntingly sing is now “Look at Her” rather than “Look at Him.” Does it matter? Only a little. While most mothers tend to offer unconditional love to their sons – as does Ida, as Shannon Bretz admirably shows -- fathers tend to be more demanding of their sons and more indulgent with their daughters. So Honk! seems a teensy bit off by showing daddy Drake (the estimable James Smith) being so insensitive to a young girl. Still, when you have a talent such as Liana Zaino, you give her the lead.

No matter which members of either sex are delivering Honk's themes, they’re well worth hearing. Little children may become more cautious about wandering after they see Ugly panic when he becomes lost. They’ll also benefit from witnessing Ida worry about Ugly when he’s not home at the time he is expected.

Here Honk! becomes a cautionary tale for parents as well. Mothers and fathers who make their children feel inferior will motivate the kids to take love wherever they can find it – which may mean a predator far more insidious than The Cat.

Sad to say, even the youngest of kids has seen or even experienced the type of cruel taunting that Ugly gets. Good that Ugly speaks up and demands to know “Why are you picking on me?” It’s a fine question in this era where we’re far more conscious of bullying.


Maginnis Buckley, Kiana Carbone, Aneesah Abdur-Razzaq. Photo by RAY LITTERIO PHOTOGRAPHY.


A nice antidote to such strife comes in Honk!'s best number, delivered by Bullfrog (the amusing Kiana Carbone), who tells Ugly “Someday someone’s gonna love you warts and all.” Kids who are just entering that awkward age may be assuaged by this. And just as Ugly could be renamed Beautiful by show’s end, remind now-gauche teens that they’ll blossom as the years pass.

Aside from its many therapeutic values, Honk! is fun to do. Kids like pretending to be animals, for they can crawl on the floor and make funny sounds. It’s also a simple show to stage. Those ubiquitous cubes that every theater has on hand here are piled high and have eggs painted on them. The actors who play ducklings hide behind them until they’re ready to pop out quacking, or, in Ugly’s case, honking.

Even the mere hour-long Honk! Jr. contains more puns than flavors at Baskin-Robbins. (Ida accuses Drake of “ducking out of his responsibilities.”) When General Greylag Goose (the sharp Aneesah Abdur-Razzaq) tells her troops “Company fall in!” everyone falls down faster than you can say “Three Stooges.” The goose grouses “I didn’t mean it literally,” which, not-so-incidentally, gives kids a chance to learn the meaning of the word.

Honk! comes to the conclusion that “It’s what’s inside that count,” while Ugly decides “I like being different.” Yes – kids need to hear that they aren’t condemned to lament over what others see as their limitations. Chances are that many kids in Honk! Jr. have been learning to celebrate who they are.

Nineteen miles away, The Madison Recreation Department and Playwrights Theatre are jointly presenting Once On This Island.

Although these kids are about the same age as the Bloomfield brood, they’re going to tackle the entire show and not just the Junior version.

The musical concerns TiMoune, a peasant girl in the French Antilles who yearns from afar of the high-born Daniel Beauxhomme. How she lusts for the man who drives recklessly past her humble abode each day.

“Choose your dreams with care,” TiMoune is urged, but she can’t help falling more deeply in love with the man who passes each day.

So she prays to the most powerful gods in her island religion.

Are you there, gods? It’s her, TiMoune. “Give her what she wants,” the gods say. But they only give her a little of it. Daniel’s recklessness causes him to crash; TiMoune finds him, nurses him back to health and they fall in love. Alas, he’s been promised to another high-born since birth.

The script calls for a single narrator, but director Brian Lang decided to share the wealth among his cast. Frankly, this is good training for kids, for it forces each kid to pay rapt attention so he’ll be ready when the time comes for him to deliver his line.

Actually, we should say “she’ll be ready when the time comes for her to deliver her line.” Here, as in Bloomfield, there is a lamentable lack of boys, so TiMoune has two mommies.

But should such a dearth have scuttled a production? No, of course not, for Once On This Island has valuable lessons to impart. TiMoune believes her parents know nothing, and she’ll be proved wrong. That she’s adopted is also a situation to which many kids will relate. The musical also reveals how much has changed in the world of class distinctions – and how much hasn’t.

Everyone will have a marvelous time singing the reggae-flavored melodies of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ exceptional lyrics, including “You are part of the human heart” – a sentiment that reveals that life is bigger than all of us, and that the world doesn’t revolve around me, myself and I.

The show is easy to mount. For the car, two kids on all fours become the seats, and four others buttress them and spin their hands around to represent wheels. You certainly won’t tax your shoe budget, for everyone goes barefoot. As with HONK, kids get to be animals (birds and frogs in this case), but there’s also a good beginner’s role for a truly young kid: The Wind. (“Just walk around and wave your arms, honey.”)

Loren Donnelly is certainly no beginner. She hasn’t put in as much time as Soula Garcia, for she started with the theater in the fourth grade and now she’s about to enter ninth. But no wonder that Lang had to cast her as TiMoune. Donnelly has fully assimilated what seems to be the hardest lesson for kids: don’t just sing the words, but feel the words, too. She’s given thought to every syllable and sentence, and each gesture that she makes down to a finger-point is perfection.

Because so many theaters have mounted Once On This Island in the last two decades, we can now easily say TiMoune belongs to everyone.

Meanwhile in Manhattan, 15 eager young performers at the Ray Arias Studios are getting ready to perform. Paula Chanda, the Executive Director of The Hub Performing Arts School in Lubbock, Texas, tries to bring a bevy of kids to New York every summer to perform a mini-showcase. “We aren’t trying to develop Broadway stars -- although several of our kids would be more than pleased if they were plucked out of Texas and put in a show today,” she admits with a grin. “What we want is for kids to learn about character and the hard work and dedication required for the arts. They might be future performers, or they might be tomorrow’s supporters of the arts.”

As if Chanda doesn’t have enough to do in watching over everyone, she also books the flight, hotel and shows that kids will see. Pippin, Matilda, Aladdin, Wicked, If/Then and Cinderella are this year’s treats.

Best of all was the showcase. Out came the kids, not dressed to kill, but dressed to perform. They started with Rent's “Seasons of Love” with choreography that reminded us that “a year in the life” can be a joyous one.

Some kids didn’t seem old enough to have experienced many 525,600-minute time spans. And yet, Kendrick Hancock already at 11 has the looks and demeanor of a star when singing Oliver's “Where is Love?”

After each song, the singer emits a shy smile that acknowledges a job well done and a “Thank you” that is necessary, considering all the appreciative applause. Thirteen-year-old Berkeley Adams shows that she isn’t even afraid to tackle Sondheim and expertly does “I Know Things Now” from Into The Woods. When the pianist loses her place, Adams keeps going a capella. Nothing’s going to stop her.

Even when a rare kid does falter, he rallies. Chanda apparently has told everyone not to be flummoxed by a mistake, but to go on as if nothing bad had happened. When 13-year old Brianna Sanchez sings “Thank you for everything I know” (a line in an In the Heights song), she seems to be aiming it toward Chanda.

They wrap up with Shrek's eleven o’clock number that is fast becoming a theater kid’s national anthem: “Let your freak flag fly,” they sing with assurance. “Never take it down” goes David Lindsay-Abaire’s lyric. Indeed – raise it high, kids.

At the end of the session, I’m asked to comment. “Do you know,” I ask, “what is said to be the number one fear of most people? Not snakes on a plane, but getting up in front of other people and speaking. This means that you’ve already conquered the Number One Fear – which means that you now don’t have to be afraid of any of the others.”

As soon as the session ends, 12-year-old Matthew Miller (who did a sensational job with “Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Gun” from A Christmas Story) immediately rushes up and gives me his professionally-taken color headshot with a resume on the back that boasts of his credits from Fiddler to Flat Stanley. Yes, they learn fast in Lubbock – especially with Paula Chanda at the helm.

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