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Child actors have 'wild' time taking on Disney classic

| Saturday, June 16, 2012, 8:24 p.m.

BLAIRSVILLE -- The Indiana Players' Philadelphia Street Playhouse has been transformed into a green and leafy jungle for its latest production, Disney's "The Jungle Book Kids."

The show will not only appeal to kids in the audience; it also is being performed by kids. Shows are slated for 8 p.m. today and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Featuring song favorites "I Wanna Be Like You," "Bare Necessities" and "Trust in Me," the show tells the story of "man-cub" Mowgli (played by John Angelo) and his adventures in the jungle with friends Baloo the bear (Amanda Olmstead) and Bagheera the panther (Amber Engelmann), who are trying to save him from the clutches of Shere Kahn (Lance Wolfe), the man-eating tiger.

Jim Chapman is one of five directors of "The Jungle Book Kids." The others are Donna Cupp, Cathy Martz, Jonathan Fridg and Olmstead.

The hour-long version of the musical, with understated scenery and few props, is designed specifically to be performed by children. The simplicity of it draws all attention to its child performers.

The costumes, too, are subdued. Most characters wear a T-shirt adorned with leaf prints. Loosely based on those for Broadway's "The Lion King" a character mask sits atop each actor's head, rather than covering it.

Jungle animals prowl the stage--elephants, monkeys, vultures and colorful birds--while the main characters don variations of those costumes.

The Players auditioned children between the ages 6 and 16 for roles. For many, it will be their first time in front of the lights.

Andrew Buchmann, 15, of Indiana, plays the primate King Louie, who tries to persuade Mowgli to teach him the secret of fire-making.

"I've done small skits and stuff with my church," he said, but "Jungle Book" represents his first time on stage for a major show.

The role has further stoked his interest in theater.

"I'm enjoying the experience," he said. "I think I'd like to do something bigger. I definitely think I will do more shows here."

Amanda Olmstead, 16, attends United High School, but also is taking classes at the CLO Academy in Pittsburgh.

An experienced dancer, she was named director of the show and was responsible for the choreography. But the aspiring actress/singer also took on a role in the musical--as Baloo, Mowgli's bear mentor and friend.

Although it is her first show with the Indiana Players, it isn't Olmstead's stage debut. She has performed in productions at her high school, as well as with the Footlight Players at IUP.

Favorite roles she's taken on were Gertrude McFuzz in United's staging of "Seussical the Musical," and Ti Moune in "Once on this Island" with the Footlight Players.

"It's a lot of fun," she said. "I love the dancing and working with the younger kids."

The Players have put a bit more emphasis on shows geared toward children in an attempt to entice a younger crop of actors. President Fran Stineman noted the group has to turn to a younger pool of talent if it wants to continue staging shows.

"We have to, because adults that used to work with us are now older, and the young adults are too busy," she said.

"We've had young people in a lot of our shows," noted Chapman, who has been involved in theater for 50 years and has performed in more than 150 shows.

Of the 200-some shows the Players have staged over the years, about 50 of them were either featured child actors or were meant for a young audience.

Some were productions that simply had many young characters, such as "The Wizard of Oz," "A Christmas Carol" and "Annie."

But others were geared specifically for both child performers and a young audience: "The Elves and the Shoemaker," "Alice in Wonderland" and "Snow White."

Chapman, who has directed children in a number of shows, said, "For some of them, it's their first time experiencing singing and acting, so it gives them the dramatic experience, working with a director, the choreographer, the vocal coaches."

The Players host summer workshops for children ages 8 to 12, and plan to hold one again this summer, with separate classes for ages 8-12 and 13-17.

The workshop focuses on theater basics such as acting, vocal and movement exercises. At the end of the workshop, the children present a show for their parents, where they sing and recite poetry and perform commercials they've written.

Several former child Players have gone on to excel in the theater world.

Ed Park, who was one of the children in the Players' version of "It's a Wonderful Life," is now at Yale Opera School. He recently was named one of the top five young opera singers in the country.

Hillary Krishham, currently is studying theater in Paris, France, along with a fellow Players alumnus, Harlan Chambers.

Many of the youth who have honed their appreciation for theater with the Players did not have stars in their eyes originally. Some audition in an attempt to find something they're good at.

Theater is great for children "that have yet to find a niche where they're comfortable and can excel," Stineman said. "I've seen the timid, ultra-shy child go up on stage shaking like a leaf, either for an audition or first day of a workshop, and turn into confident, competent, self-satisfied children over the course of four to six weeks.

"It's just marvelous, whatever happens to them."

She referred to former child Player Matt Amendt, whose first show with the group was "Cinderella."

"He had no expression on his face, no articulation in his voice," she recalled. Now, Amendt has performed at the Guthrie Theater in Minnesota. "And he turned into a wonderful actor through the years."

Most young actors who have taken the stage with the Players do not go on to study the art in college, or make a career of it.

"But whatever field they choose, they'll enter it with a lot more self-confidence, and therefore be more successful," Stineman said.

There are many challenges of directing children in theater. Notorious for their short attention spans, children don't have the focus that more mature actors may have.

The majority of fresh-faced actors also come into their first productions with a good case of stage fright.

"It's the biggest and most rewarding thing, to encourage the child to forget their fears," Stineman said. "And that's easier to do when they're taking on the persona of another character. "

Children also have their strengths when it comes to theater. Memorizing lines and lyrics is something that many adult actors have trouble with, but children, especially those in second through fifth grade, actually have a much easier time with memorization, Stineman said. "They memorize the fastest and keep them forever."

In their continued attempt to attract a younger pool of talent, Stineman said a few more children's shows have been sprinkled through the season schedules.

Because the seating in the new playhouse is limited, the Players plan on doing a few more shows than usual. Most shows run over two weekends to allow everyone a chance to view them.

Before they moved into the Playhouse, the Players' season ran from September through May. Now, they put on about eight shows a year, one every six weeks or so, "in order to pay our operating expenses," Stineman said.

For those not interested in performing, Stineman said the Players are in need of people willing to learn the technical aspects of theater, such as lighting and sound.

The Indiana Players are celebrating their 30th anniversary this year. They spent 12 years at the Indiana Theater Building, leaving in 2002. It took them several years to find a suitable home before moving into the Philadelphia Street Playhouse in September 2005.

Stineman estimates they've presented more than 200 shows in their 30 years.

"When we first started and came up with the bylaws and articles of incorporation, one of the main goals was the education of children and adults in theater appreciation and participation," Stineman said.

Now that the anxiety of the Indiana Players' future is behind them, the group has focused its attention on recruiting fresh new faces to star in their shows.

"We're trying to keep this going," Chapman said. "We think of this as a county theater, not an Indiana town theater."

Tickets for "Jungle Book Kids" cost $10 for adults and $8 for students or senior citizens. For more information, call 724-463-7122.

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