Filichia Features: Wrapping up Junior Theater Festival ‘14

Filichia Features: Wrapping up Junior Theater Festival ‘14

At the Junior Theater Festival ’14, Saturday night and all day Sunday are the best times to be in the MTI ShowSpace. After those many events in small breakout rooms, how nice to have all 4,000 of us together. I love walking up to the stage, turning around and seeing the sea of kids in the darkened hall. Every year, I like to count how many are wearing tall hats that have alternating red and white stripes on them. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, authors of Seussical, would be proud to know that I can see eighteen, and I know there are so many I’m missing.

Or should I say Seussical JR.? Statistics shows that parents rarely name their sons for their fathers as was the custom in the early and middle parts of the 20th century. But the word “Junior” is alive and well in musical theater from sea to shining sea and oceans beyond.

While we’re waiting for the official festivities to begin, selections from musicals play over the sound system. When “Belle” is heard, the hundreds who have portrayed the French lass – and the thousands who haven’t – join together to sing the lyrics. For those who doubt that musical theater can enrich vocabulary, I point to “Belle,” which undoubtedly gave kids the first opportunity to learn the meaning of the word “provincial.”

During the Annie overture, kids from The SEED School Falcon Theatre from the District of Columbia are ready when music reaches “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile.” They leap off their seats and onto the floor to replicate their choreography. A few seconds before the melody segues into “We’d Like to Thank You,” they immediately sit, knowing that the overture only gives an appetizer’s worth of the song and not the whole entrée. But they enjoyed the opportunity.

Speaking of “We’d Like to Thank You,” the kids get to thank the teachers and directors who brought them here. For when the instructors are asked to stand and take a bow, they get cheers that make ones that Sutton Foster received at her Thoroughly Modern Millie curtain calls sound like the ones Charo would get if she played Hedda Gabler. How often do teachers get this type of validation and appreciation at the average middle- or high-school?

“I’m on the amphetamine of musical theater,” says Benj Pasek, the Dogfight author who sits next to me while James and The Giant Peach, the musical he co-wrote with Justin Paul and Tim McDonald, is unveiled courtesy of the Seattle Children’s Theatre. Here’s an instance where The Junior Theater Festival mirrors adult theater. In the best 42nd Street tradition, one of James' leading players is indisposed and an understudy must take over. Alas, that kid isn’t waiting in the wings, but is still home in Washington state. A frantic phone call is soon followed by a plane ride from Seattle to Atlanta so the show can go on. I’m telling you, the Junior Theater Festival is serious business.

So when Tim McDonald takes the stage to joke that the event is being streamed “to tens of people,” all I can think is “Yeah, Tim – but 11 years ago, only 650 kids were here. As a Dorothy Fields lyric goes, ‘It’s not where you start; it’s where you finish’ – and the Junior Theater Festival is far from finished.”

Let’s go on with the show. The talented kids from Harris County Carver Middle School in Hamilton, GA are doing Shrek: The Musical JR. When they get to “Let Your Freak Flag Fly,” the audience erupts into excitement. This anthem has already encouraged many kids to be themselves and not worry what other people (especially the uptight, dishwater-dull ones) think of them.

Mary Pope Osborne, the author of The Knights at Dawn (not to mention other Magic Tree House books that have sold over 120 million copies) frankly admits that “the musical version is better than the book.” (It will be available for licensing sometime this spring.)

We get to see for ourselves courtesy of Roy Waldron Drama from La Vergne, Tennessee. Jack and Annie return to medieval times, when anyone who was arrested was presumed guilty until proven innocent. “Welcome to the Dungeon,” both kids are told in a song that bears no relationship to “Welcome to the ‘60s” but is as much fun in its own perverse way. Do you think Annie’s discouraged? “You can take away anything,” she states, “but you can’t take away hope.” And when another oppressed prisoner begins to sing, the thousands of kids in the MTI ShowSpace begin to cheer.

Benj Pasek can pitch the “Whoo!” with the best of them. He’s among the most enthusiastic in the house – well, at least until Andrew Keenan-Bolger, who’s judging three kids in a dance contest, is challenged to dance himself. That causes Pasek to let out an “Oh, no!” worthy of Anne in A Little Night Music when she sees that that engraved invitation has come from the Armfeldt family manse.

Says Pasek, who met Keenan-Bolger when both were studying musical theater at the University of Michigan, “He’s my best friend and I love him dearly, but if there’s one thing he can’t do, it’s dance. They made him Crutchie in Newsies for a reason.”

Keenan-Bolger knows it, too. He purposely does a bad pirouette and throws himself onto the floor with the thud of Pinocchio after his strings have been cut. The actor then laughs as hard as everyone else in the house (with the possible exception of Pasek).

Legally Blonde Jr. is performed by Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School of Oak Park, IL. The kids’ “Bend and Snap” has plenty of snap, crackle and pop music. The lad playing Kyle, the UPS delivery man, must endure the injury that Paulette inadvertently caused. Where I’m sitting allows me to see that as he limps off in pain, he continues limping well into the wings. That, friends, is called staying in character. By show’s end, I’m also heart-warmed by the look of friendship that the girls playing Elle and Vivian give each other. This reiterates one of Legally Blonde's most valuable lessons: if a person hates you, it’s not necessarily a lifetime sentence; in time, you can change the person’s mind by being nice and accomplished.

We’re not only introduced to a selection of Mary Poppins by the Rose Theater of Omaha, but we also meet Henry Hodges, the original Michael Banks from the Broadway production. He tells us that he was once a Junior Theater Festival attendee and he remembers “the talent and support I got here. I got to see happiness on everyone’s face.” Now he’s the co-author of How to Act Like a Kid.

Ashley Brown, the original Mary Poppins, is here to stress that Henry learned his lines early and always knew them. Yeah, nothing beats an actor who’s off-book. Brown then leads everyone in a rendition of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” as beach balls bounce off the stage and into the audience, where kids and adults keep them afloat. The beach balls soar high, but not nearly as high as everyone who’s participated in JTF ’14.

And then there’s news about a musical that’s older than most kids here: The Lion King. The announcement that its JR. edition will be released in 2015 is enough to send some kids cheering, but others to slam fists into their thighs with frustration; they’ll already be out of school when the opportunity arises. To you older kids I say: aren’t there those professional national companies touring the globe, not to mention the now-and-forever Broadway edition? Think big!

Now to my own favorite personal moment of the weekend. My hotel room is on the tenth floor, and it seems that almost every time I’m waiting for the elevator, the same young man soon arrives and waits for it with me. After a few days of this, we both kinda-sorta-almost feel acquainted, and eventually he breaks the ice by saying “Hi!”

“So tell me about you,” I say. “Are you going to be an actor when you get out of school?”

“Oh!” he said, infusing the word with passion and aspiration. “Absolutely. I mean, if I had to sit in an office all day and stare at a computer and type, I mean, I’d go crazy. Crazy! I don’t know how anyone can do it.”

Because elevators are busy during Junior Theater Festival, we have ample time to talk. I ask about the various roles he’s already had as well as ones he’d like to play. Finally, he decides that he should be polite and ask about me: “So what do YOU do?”

“I sit in an office all day and stare at a computer and type,” I answer drolly.

He took a quick glance at my name tag, saw “MTI” under my name, and immediately (and I mean immediately) said, “Yeah, but you work for a company that deals with musical theater, and you love what you do. I’m talking about accountants.”

I have a feeling this young man will do very well as an actor – especially at improvs.

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