Show-stoppers! Riverside, Gifford students shine at Junior Theatre Festival


With funding for the arts continually on the chopping block, Vero Beach students are fortunate to have generous Riverside Theatre patrons on their side. As a result of individual philanthropists and through fundraisers such as Vegas Nights and Winterfest, Riverside is able to provide opportunities for children that would not otherwise be possible.

Students who participate in Riverside’s educational programs have traveled to Atlanta since 2009 to perform in the Junior Theatre Festival there. This year, thanks to a legacy donation, the program was expanded to include students from the Gifford Youth Achievement Center.

“A few years back MJ [Mary Jane] Grant, one of our beloved Patron Producers and a member of the Backstage Access classes, passed away. She was a big fan of everything at Riverside, and was especially moved by the story of Jamari Williams,” explains Kevin Quillinan, Riverside’s director of theater education.

A multi-talented youngster raised in Gifford, Williams performed with Riverside’s educational programs, the Gifford Youth Orchestra and the Saint Edward’s School performing arts program. Now living in New York, Williams performs on Broadway and with touring companies.

“When he came back to Riverside to perform in ‘Smokey Joe’s Cafe,’ MJ absolutely loved him. When she passed away, she left a generous legacy donation to Riverside Theatre’s education program, specifically for us to reach more kids like Jamari,” says Quillinan.

“This eventually led us to the Gifford Youth Achievement Center, and it turned into this incredible opportunity for their kids, performing Disney’s ‘The Lion King, JR’ first during Winterfest and then in Atlanta.”

He explains that after performing the entire hour-long production of “The Lion King, JR” at Winterfest, a 15-minute version of the show was crafted in line with JTF requirements.

The Junior Theatre Festival invites musical theater troupes from around the world to prepare and perform 15-minute adaptations of popular Broadway musicals that are adjudicated by a panel of musical theater experts. The weekend also includes professional development for teachers, and workshops for students and parents.

The 28-student Riverside component performed “James and the Giant Peach,” directed by Quillinan, with his wife Debbie as the music director. Adam Schnell, Riverside’s director of dance and Ballet Vero Beach CEO, joined them to choreograph the 15-student GYAC group.

The GYAC students were chosen through a standard audition process and began rehearsals in August. The two leads selected were Serenity Morgan as Rafiki and Joshua Irby as Scar.

“It was just like one of our regular shows at Riverside. We wanted to give them the full experience of auditioning, rehearsing, performing, the whole thing. None of it was simplified or modified. We didn’t want to dilute what we do well,” says Quillinan.

Also in line with JTF, there were no costumes or props for either the full-length or 15-minute version.

“It’s all about keeping the focus on the performing. That’s the standard at JTF, so for the shows here we keep it to that same spirit,” he explains.

Having never previously performed, Quillinan says the GYAC children had no idea what the reception would be.

“It was incredibly exciting to see the looks on their faces as they were taking it all in. It was incredible to see these kids enter apprehensively and nervous, not knowing what to expect.

But midway through their first number, when they got a huge cheer as they sang the song ‘The Circle of Life,’ you could see their shoulders raise up a little bit and little smiles creep into their faces as they really took in the effect they were having on the audience.”

And that reaction, he says, was one of joy and excitement.

“During the last number, our actor playing Rafiki was so overcome with emotion that she began crying when the audience clapped along with her. The audience and the judges cried along with her,” says Quillinan.

“From there the group became legendary at the festival. Everywhere they went they were stopped by people who were in the room with them, praising them for how wonderful they were and how excited they were to see them,” says Quillinan.

“The leaders of the festival itself were buzzing about the group and talking amongst themselves and in teacher workshops about how amazing they were.”

He also has high praise for the more experienced Riverside students, who were “incredibly supportive and loving of their new Gifford friends.”

At the final day’s award ceremony, the Riverside Theatre students received the Freddie G. Excellence in Acting award, a new honor for the group, and the GYAC students won the Excellence in Ensemble Work award.

“This one is incredibly meaningful for us and them, seeing as most of the kids did not know each other five months ago. They came together to not only perform well, but to become such a strong team and a strong group that they were recognized as such by the festival,” says Quillinan with pride.

The GYAC group was also presented with a special Freddie G Inspiration Award, and Morgan and Irby were selected as JTF All-Stars.

“It’s amazing how well they did, considering that they were very new to all of it when they started; the fact that they held their own against performers who are very experienced and have done it many times. That they could stand shoulder to shoulder with those guys is really amazing,” says Quillinan.

“It was amazing to see both groups shine, and to have the chance to afford the Gifford kids an opportunity to discover the joys of theater and participate in a life-changing trip,” he adds.

“Even more important is the fact that this is not the only time we are going to do this.

Because of the generosity of our donor, we will be bringing this group back next year, and years after. We can’t wait to see how much they grow next year, having been through the festival and knowing what it’s really about.”

He says Riverside will also offer summer scholarships to a few of the GYAC students, funded through its educational initiatives. Between the school year and the annual summer camp, hundreds of children participate and perform in its educational programs, which include youth theater, music and dance classes.

Additionally, there are outreach programs such as Schoolsical, an afterschool theater program where instructors go to select schools to rehearse with students, who eventually perform on the Stark Stage. There are also community outreach and engagement programs for children enrolled in area nonprofits, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of Indian River County, Gifford Youth Orchestra and the Youth Guidance Mentoring Academy.

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