Filichia's Features: Welcome to the Junior Theater Festival, Part 4

Filichia's Features: Welcome to the Junior Theater Festival, Part 4

Saturday night, January 14, 2012. Every participant at the Junior Theater Festival has seen at least eight segments compete with MTI’s Jr. musicals.  But eight is not enough.

The ballroom at the Atlanta Renaissance Waverly is packed with students, teachers, parents and well-wishers who want to see more. Now they’ll see production numbers that won’t be in competition for festival prizes, but will be done for the reason that shows should be done: for the fun of it.  The Academy of Theater Arts (of Williamsville, New York) presents My Son Pinocchio, Jr. In it, Gepetto asks, "Why is it that the people with children don't want children?" Many audiences have chuckled in recognition at this line, but this is not one of them. These thousands of kids in attendance know that they have parents who care deeply for them, or else they wouldn't be here. The lad playing Pinocchio gets the best kind of applause: it starts out big, but after the inevitable lessening occurs, the audience realizes that it didn't give the kid enough praise. As a result, the applause surges to become even louder than it originally was.

Professional Peter Pans do their flying by Foy, but that company is financially out of reach for festival participants. So the enterprising director from the Boothbay (Maine) Region YMCA instead makes Peter stand proud and tall while a student crouches to his right and holds a cardboard cloud in front of his midsection. Another student stands behind him and holds a cardboard cloud above Peter’s head. He’s “flying!” Later in the song, other students walk behind Wendy, Michael and John, holding sticks that are topped with cutouts of the characters in flight, with photographs of their faces. The sound of laughter is one that’s appreciative of a director and designer who used imagination.

What may be the most astonishing number of all is Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School’s BRAVO program doing “The Begat” from Finian’s Rainbow, Jr. Just as advertisements for figurines often say “Picture is 5/8ths the size of actual object,” this production number seems to be a genuine, first-class, A-number one offering straight from New York, except that the performers are about 5/8ths of the size of Broadway performers. The audience screams so loudly that you’d think that Elvis has just entered the building. Tim McDonald, iTheatrics and a Junior Theater Festival founder, is so impressed by “The Begat” that he later begs that BRAVO perform the number one more time.

No wonder that some of the students were selected to join others in choreographing, teaching and performing Newsies’ “Seize the Day” and the end of the night. “All for one and one for all,” goes a lyric in the song, which, considering the festival’s mission, is a most apt line to conclude this day’s activities.

Sunday, January 15 at 10:30 a.m. The panel is called “From JTF to Success,” and features three previous festival participants: Catherine Charlebois, who’s appeared in Wicked both on Broadway and on tour; Nicholas Christopher, recently Tom Collins in the current off-Broadway Rent revival; and Maggie Watts, who appears in many professional musicals in her native Georgia. Christopher admits that his “biggest obstacle is taking criticism,” and urges the crowd to do better than he does with it. Watts tells them they have to be ready for their big break at a moment’s notice. She remembers her trial by fire as a child when she was playing Tessie in Annie – and the lass playing Annie became ill two days before opening. Says Watts, “When they asked me if I could do it, I said, ‘I think I can’ – and they said, ‘You can’t “think” it. You have to know.’” One thing Watts now knows: “It was one of the best experiences I ever had.” Charlebois can relate to that: when she appeared at the mammoth Fox Theatre here in Atlanta, “as soon as I started singing, the fear went away.”

And speaking of Annie, lo and behold, each of its creators are here to accept an award for writing a musical that has been so important to young people. Lyricist, director and conceiver Martin Charnin, composer Charles Strouse and bookwriter Thomas Meehan all are charmed to see dozens of kids take the stage and sing “Tomorrow.” But Charnin also takes the opportunity to mention that seven long years had to pass from the day that he had the idea of a musical about Little Orphan Annie to its opening night. He’s not just reminiscing; the subtext is that the kids in attendance who want careers should not expect things to happen (you should pardon the expression) tomorrow.

Sunday, January 15 at 12 noon. Everyone gets a sneak peek at NBC’s new series Smash, about the making of a Broadway musical. Better still, three of its performers – Christian Borle, Jaime Cepero and Brian D’Arcy James – as well as producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan – are here to talk about their own experiences in show business. Meron, when talking about people who audition, stresses how important confidence is. “The actor tells us it’s his role instead of us telling him.” And Lord knows how much hope Borle gives to many vertically challenged kids when he says that during his sophomore year, he was still only 4’ 11” when all the other boys had long eclipsed five feet. But perhaps the most telling moment of the afternoon – if not the entire festival – comes when McDonald says, “It’s hard for a boy to profess his love for musical theater.” There’s a silence at first, and then some weak applause from a few. The audience has spoken: yes, there was a time when it was, but as time goes on, it’s not as true as it once was. And the Junior Theater Festival is one important reason why.

Borle also gives some wise words when he says, “Everyone has his own time table, so don’t drive yourself crazy if someone else meets some early success. Do not make another person’s success your failure.” Needless to say, they talk about Smash, too. Says Borle, “There’s a reason why there’s a curtain in front of a show, because all the real drama is behind it.” Time will tell if Smash will turn out to be as popular as M*A*S*H, but it’s already a hit at the Junior Theater Festival. NBC has also announced financing for the "NBC's 'SMASH Make a Musical Program.” Fifteen schools that are currently underserved will get some help to get kids singing, dancing and acting.

Sunday, January 15 at 2:30 p.m. Time to learn who won the Freddie G Awards, named for Freddie Gershon, the chairman and CEO of MTI. He tells the kids, “We’re privileged that you’re learning the craft,” he says. “Committees have shown that arts education leads to students with better grades and adults who become better citizens. Your teachers are the difference in your having musical theater in your life or not.”

The students are reminded of all the sacrifices that these teachers make for them. And to think that they do it for a yearly salary that is commensurate with a pro athlete’s annual dry cleaning bill. Of course, everyone wants to win a Freddie G. Many, if not all, think that they should. And that's why before the chosen few are announced, Tim McDonald makes every kid stand, put a hand over his heart, and repeat after him that no matter what the results, no one will complain. Everyone will instead remember "that attending the 2012 Junior Theater Festival was reward enough." Indeed, to paraphrase Horton in Seussical, “An actor’s an actor, no matter how small.”

As it turns out, Dina Slawson’s Academy Encore Ensemble is cited for My Son Pinocchio, Jr. as well as Becky Morris’ Casper Children's Theatre for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Jr.; Patsy Riley’s Central Drama Players for Annie, Jr.; Rhonda Cato’s Magic Curtain Productions, Inc. for Seussical, Jr.; Albert Carter’s Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School for The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley, Jr.; Kevin Quillinan’s Riverside Children's Theatre for The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley, Jr.; Bakari J. King’s University School of Nashville for Roald Dahl’s Willie Wonka, Jr. and Neeahtima Dowdy’s Wood Acres School for Once on This Island, Jr.

Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School also discovers that “The Begat” will not be its only huzzah. For the third straight year, BRAVO is deemed to have the festival’s outstanding production, this time for its Schoolhouse Rock Live, Jr. But another record might well have been set during the Junior Theater Festival 2012. If the Guinness Book of World Records kept statistics on the number of goose bumps raised on bodies in a single weekend, the Junior Theater Festival might well be the winner.



You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at and each Friday at His newest book, Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons, is now available through Applause Books and at