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Local youth troupes shine at Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta

Melody Lane Performing Arts Center, Florida Rep Education and Creative Theater Workshop all earn high marks

By CJ HADDAD - | Jan 21, 2022

Students from the Melody Lane Performing Arts Center. PHOTO PROVIDED

Southwest Florida’s youth thespians were in the national spotlight and a major hit at the Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta last weekend.

Local troupes Melody Lane Performing Arts Center, Florida Rep Education, and Creative Theater Workshop all shined in front of Broadway and Tony Award-winning actors, taking home awards and recognitions among representatives from three different countries.

Cape Coral based Melody Lane continued its outstanding showings at the Junior Theater Festival, earning the Freddie G award for Excellence in Acting. Melody Lane’s adjudication – a 15-minute condensed version of the show for judges – featured their portrayal of “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, JR.”

Theater Director Dana Alvarez called this year’s JTF the most exciting yet.

“It is an unmatched theatrical educational experience,” she said. “Even with a global pandemic affecting some of the protocols and activities, the magic was never lost.”

Melody Lane’s team in their fourth JTF appearance consisted of 41 students from ages 8 to 18, and 40-plus family members and directors. The students in the troupe varied in ages and experience levels, “but we always love to include the younger ones and help them rise to the bar that the older students set,” Alvarez said. “Our goal is not to create an elite team of perfect performers, but a diverse group of young people who can learn from each other and encourage one another. What we might sacrifice in supposed ‘perfection,’ we gain in heart.”

Melody Lane put on its full production of “Beauty and the Beast JR.” with two separate casts in early December, and worked to shorten their performance for the festival.

“It was challenging to choose the full numbers that would help us tell a story and also highlight the strengths of our students,” Alvarez said. “It was also hard to have such a vast variety of students and age groups, and catch up the kids who were not in the production.”

They certainly did enough to impress the esteemed panel of judges, taking out top honors in for acting. Alvarez said the judges felt their students were true comedians that found the clever nuances of the material.

Composer and lyricist Rob Rokicki (The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical), in a release said, “Melody Lane Performing Arts had fantastic physical comedy and strong commitment to their characters. You can tell how well Melody Lane trained these talented young people of all ages to work together to create great storytelling. There were some fantastic smart choices that actors made that showed they developed poise and confidence from the program.”

If they didn’t have enough on their plate, Melody Lane was also selected to perform in the “New Works Showcase” – a special presentation on the second night of the festival in which some groups are asked to present brand-new Broadway Junior shows. Melody Lane was given “The Big One-Oh JR.”

“It is always such an exciting event to get to see the debuts of material hot off the presses,” Alvarez said. “We always watched thinking, ‘These are the best of the best. What a privilege it would be to be up there.'”

The group was contacted by the head of Theatre Education at iTheatrics, which is not only the organization that runs the Junior Theater Festival, but also the professionals who are commissioned to adapt musicals for young performers. After winning JTF’s Outstanding Production two years (2019 and 2021), receiving other group awards, individual festival awards for students, and Alvarez as theater director being recognized as a Freddie G Teacher of the Year, they felt Melody Lane had the right stuff. They were one of five groups out of 110 total to be selected. The students performed in front of 5,500 people on the Main Stage. “It was a surreal experience our students will never forget,” Alvarez said. Melody Lane also earned the Showcase Group Award for their performance of “The Big One-Oh JR.”

“We are not there just to win awards, but to celebrate our students’ talents and hard work, and cheer on others,” Alvarez said. “We are especially proud of their sportsmanship because they made friends with other groups and cheered for them like they were on our team. They gave so many shouts and standing ovations and it made us happy to see what kind young people we have. And that is worth more than any trophies.”

Melody Lane Performing Arts Center students Athena Belis, 16, and Elijah Grant, 17, made it to the callback for future video shoots for “how-to” choreography videos. Grant and River Reed,13, were also distinguished as All-Stars — an outstanding group of young performers at the festival.

This spring, Melody Lane will be producing the full, major musical production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “School of Rock the Musical,” based on the movie starring Jack Black. Along with Alvarez, Melody Lane’s team consists of Choreographer Sami Doherty and Co-Director: Amber Angeloro.

Florida Rep Education

Florida Rep Education certainly left a lasting mark on the judges and festival, taking home the top honor of weekend in the Freddie G Outstanding Production award. This was Fort Myers based group’s third year at JTF.

“It really is one of those once in a lifetime experiences,” said Florida Rep Education Director Christina DeCarlo. “Especially for theater students who come together and celebrate theater. They meet students from all over the world who have the same interests as them.”

DeCarlo said getting to participate in JTF workshops and hear first-hand from seasoned performers is an invaluable experience for her students.

“It’s so, so special, and it’s a highlight for us to be able to go,” she said.

Florida Rep Education performed selections from Legally Blonde The Musical JR., that producer and librettist Daniel Stoddart (Dot and the Kangaroo: An Aussie Musical Adventure) called the best he’s experienced at the festival.

“Florida Rep’s presentation of Legally Blonde JR. was by far my favorite performance that I have ever seen at JTF,” Stoddart said in a release. “The professionalism of the young performers would be something I would easily have mistaken for something on Broadway. Not only was their performance outstanding, but the young performers were humble and grateful to receive feedback on their hard work.”

DeCarlo said she could not be prouder of the way her students put it all out there.

“They went out there and just gave it everything they had in that adjudication,” she said. “We talked a lot about having heart and having passion when you’re storytelling. This cast was such a strong ensemble and really took to hear the lesson and story of the show itself. They just did amazing.”

Because they earned the title of outstanding production, Florida Rep closed out the festival and performed “Omigod You Guys” from the show in front 5,500 people.

Students Isabel Isenhower and Aiden Johnson made it to the callback for future video shoots for “how-to” choreography videos.

Macy Magas and Kristen Noble were distinguished as All-Stars.

Noble, 16, played the leading role of Elle Woods and Magas, 15, played her sidekick of sorts Margot.

“Not only does Kristen have a beautiful voice, she really connected with the character so well,” DeCarlo said. “She was really such a great leader throughout the entire process. She really stepped it up and led the ensemble in an amazing way.”

Of Magas, DeCarlo said, “Macy brought the energy right from the beginning and she’s so talented.”

Creative Theater Workshop

Creative Theater Workshop out of Fort Myers participated in its 11th JTF festival in 2022 and presented “Disney’s Aladdin JR.” for music director and iTheatrics Master Teacher Derek Bowley; as well as Michael J. Bobbitt, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Of their performance, Bowley, in a release, said, “The songs were exciting thanks to the tight execution of the harmonies in the score. The presentation was full of contrasts, from the frantic energy of ‘High Adventure’ to the beautifully executed magic carpet created by the actors’ bodies and staging. Even with masks, the expressive eyes of the actors helped add depth and meaning to the scenes throughout the performance. This program allows students to explore their creativity through musical theater. Performers are learning the importance of collaboration and what’s possible when you are part of an ensemble.”

Creative Workshop Theater Artistic Director Michelle Kuntze said attending JTF each year brings an unwavering excitement and inspires their students to continue their love of the arts.

“Every time we go, we learn so much and the kids just have a positive, fulfilling experience,” she said. “They get the motivation to keep working and pursue their dreams. We’re honored to be able to get to go this year with COVID.”

Creative Theater Workshop student Mia Henley made it to the callback for future video shoots for “how-to” choreography videos. Henley, 12, and Emma Kane, 14, were also named festival All-Stars.

“Mia just fell in love with theater this past summer at our camp,” Kuntze said. “The judgers were really impressed with her. She stepped into the Aladdin role only a month before we left for the festival. She was so honored to be recognized and she’s worked really hard.”

“Kane has performed all over Fort Myers and did a really great job as Jasmine. She did an exceptional performance.”

Creative Theater Workshop is planning on attending JTF in England May 20-30. They will be holding auditions for that team this weekend and presenting “Disney’s The Lion King JR.”

The troupe will also be performing “Grease” at the Fort Myers Theater March 4 through the 13 Thursdays through Sundays.

–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj

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