"A Whole New World": Playbill.com's Student Reporter Captures Magic of the 2013 Junior Theater Festival

By Brennan Felbinger
February 12, 2013

The 2013 Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta, GA, was a hit during Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend this past January, uniting and inspiring over 4,000 young theatre lovers from across the country. Playbill.com was there, along with student reporter Brennan Felbinger, a junior at the Florida arts-magnet high school The Dreyfoos School of the Arts. He gives readers his perspective on what it all means to young performers.



*

Not many 17-year-olds can say that they've had the chance to write an article for Playbill.com. In fact, not very many people ever can say that they've gotten such a marvelous opportunity, so when I was approached with the possibility of being able to do so, I couldn't have been more excited.

My assignment was simple. In basic terms I was told, "Enjoy yourself." I didn't exactly know what to expect, but I had a good feeling and high optimism after just a couple minutes at the Junior Theater Festival Jan. 19-20 in Atlanta, GA, presented by iTheatrics and Atlanta's Theater of the Stars.

JTF is geared mostly toward middle school students, but it even welcomes attendees as young as eight years old. The festival celebrates the talent and the love of theatre that every single person I met over the course of the weekend held in abundance. Coming from a school of the arts myself, I can happily say I was more blown away by the talent and dedication of kids several years younger than me.

The festival is open to any community, after-school and in-school theatre group that has performed — or is planning to perform — a Broadway JR or KIDS collection show, which are licensed through Music Theatre International. Each group performs a 15-minute excerpt for a panel of judges who are all industry professionals. Following the performance, the students receives critiques from the judges, which more than likely end with praise. I didn't see a single performance which I would consider to be anything less than praiseworthy, and the judges agreed with me in their short speeches to the kids following each performance. It was extremely evident from day one that these kids were beyond talented.

On the first day of my attendance I spent the majority of my time integrated with the kids and teachers of Theatre Under the Stars of Houston, TX. They had prepared an excerpt from Godspell JR. Following their incredible performance in front of the adjudicators, one of the judges even said, "I have no fear for the future of Broadway." This was an incredibly emotional moment for the kids of TUTS, as well as myself, and the choreographer and director, both of whom were high school students. Later, the students were taken into a private room to discuss with one of the festival's representatives what it was like to perform for Broadway professionals and how they felt during, and after, the performance. It was a completely new experience for a large majority of the kids, and brought back personal memories of my first time performing for a large group of people, and how good it felt to be commended for my work on stage.

Alan Menken tears up as he is serenaded by over 100 students.
photo by Marcus Woollen/MTI

One of the most amazing parts of the festival was the New Works Showcase, in which groups from some of the 23 states in attendance at the festival got their chance to perform and debut Disney Theatrical's newest "Junior" versions of their Broadway hits. The students of TUTS had the opportunity to debut their rendition of Disney's Aladdin Dual Language Edition. They presented an English/Spanish hybrid version of "A Whole New World" and "El Principe Ali." Also presented were the brand new Broadway JR editions of Hairspray and Xanadu.

The festival participants got a real treat the next day when Alan Menken, the Tony and Academy Award-winning composer of Beauty and the Beast,  Little Shop of Horrors, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Sister Act, Newsies and "Pocahontas," performed selections from his repertoire. The entire crowd responded generously and with incredibly energy; at some points the entire crowd sang along in unison to the lyrics of "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid and the title song from Beauty and the Beast. Menken was also presented with the 2013 Junior Theater Festival Award. Immeditately following, hundreds of kids swarmed the stage and sang "Be Our Guest," leaving the Grammy, Tony, Oscar, Golden Globe, and Grammy Award-winning composer in tears, saying, "This award means the most to me."

Some of the other special guests included Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Kara Lindsay and Mike Faist of Broadway's Newsies, who performed a few selections from the Tony-winning show. They also gave the inspired crowd a chance to ask some questions about what it's like being a Broadway performer, and even how they dealt with bullying in school. Skylar Astin of "Pitch Perfect" and Briga Heelan of television's "Cougar Town" offered their own presentations where they spoke about their lives as performers and answered questions from the audience. Tim Federle of Broadway's Gypsy and The Little Mermaid introduced his first novel, "Better Nate Than Ever" — and he even signed copies for hundreds of kids at the festival.

The 4,000 kids at the Junior Theater Festival truly inspired me and the Playbill staff who were in attendance — we can't wait to be there next year!

View the Entire Photo Gallery
The Broadway JR. All-Stars, made up of two outstanding students from each of the 82 groups at the festival, perform the song “Oh, Bless the Lord”
Photo by Marcus Woollen/MTI