‘Something really special’: After 4 months of bonding, cast members of ‘Aladdin Jr.’ are ready for showtime

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Eleanor Roust, left, and Kelsey King sing "Prince Ali" during a rehearsal of Disney’s "Aladdin Jr." at Theatre Lawrence on Monday, June 24, 2019. King plays the role of Genie, and Roust is a peer mentor.

Kelsey King sat patiently Monday afternoon while a volunteer brushed her hair into a high ponytail for her role as the Genie in this weekend’s Penguin Project performance of Disney’s “Aladdin Jr.” at Theatre Lawrence.

Eleanor Roust, Kelsey’s mentor, stood nearby, concerned that her own ponytail wouldn’t go up as high. Not that the two had to be identical, but they wanted to look like the team they have become over the past four months.

Roust, who turns 12 on Friday, the opening night for the production, has been by Kelsey’s side during every rehearsal since they first met on a snowy night in February during an informational meeting about the Penguin Project.

Dressed in soft turquoise outfits created by Elle Patton, the costume designer for the production, they were having finishing touches added — a bow and some jewels in Kelsey’s hair and a sash around Eleanor’s waist — for the dress rehearsal.

“Being part of the Penguin Project has helped me to see things from Kelsey’s perspective,” Eleanor said. “I’m not just thinking about myself.”

On stage, alongside Kelsey, Eleanor sings, dances and helps with any lines Kelsey might forget. Together they have become the Genie.

“I think we’ll stay close,” Kelsey, 16, said. “I’m going to ask her for her number.”

This is what the organization’s founder, Andy Morgan, of Peoria, Ill., a specialist for children with special needs, predicted would happen when he spoke on that February night about the project. He designed the Penguin Project to be a supportive environment for children with special needs to explore their creative talents. Since 2004, the project has evolved nationally, with 32 chapters throughout the U.S. This is Theatre Lawrence’s first production as a chapter.

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Natasha Stein, left, and Delaney Wagner rehearse a scene of “Aladdin Jr.” at Theatre Lawrence on Monday, June 24, 2019.

In the Penguin Project, those with special needs are known as the artists and are paired with a mentor to help them through the production.

Over the past few months, Morgan has returned to Lawrence for three rehearsals to offer assistance with the cast of 17 artists and 19 mentors. He plans to be in the audience Friday night.

During a visit in May, Morgan watched a rehearsal from high up in the theater. He was happy to see how comfortable the artists and mentors were becoming with one another.

“Things are starting to mesh,” he said. “They are exactly where they are supposed to be.”

Morgan has also been available by phone and email to offer guidance, said Hailey Gillespie youth education director with Theatre Lawrence. Gillespie, along with Molly Gordon, choreographer, Susan Hires, music director, and Christie Dobson, the mentor coordinator, has been leading the production.

Dobson, a registered drama therapist, has been behind the scenes making sure all the mentors and artists are working well together and making sure everyone is included.

She has watched the mentors and artists grow dedicated to each other and to the project. However, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

photo by: Ashley Golledge

From far left, Natasha Stein, Daniel Saripalli, Beckett Hutchinson, Devin Farris, Elizabeth Heinz, Ione Mason, Jasmine Clock, Harper Cordts, Jesiah Haider-Markel and James Baker rehearse a scene of “Aladdin Jr.” at Theatre Lawrence on Monday, June 24, 2019.

During rehearsals, she has been sensitive to anyone who might be out of sorts. Even on a bad day when an artist doesn’t want to cooperate, everyone remains patiently supportive.

“So far we have been able to decompress any behaviors and take a breather and let the artist get back into rehearsal mode,” Dobson said.

Sharah Davis appreciates the kind of patience that has been shown to her son Dylan Groves, 12, who has been cast as one of the palace guards.

“This is the first community activity he has been in on his own,” Sharah said. “Here no child is left behind.”

More than just a production

Monday afternoon, Victoria Rossenrode, 15, looked surprised at her image as she studied herself in the mirror for the first time transformed into Princess Jasmine. Her mentor Makayla Stein, 14, rushed over excitedly to offer her approval. Another mentor, Devin Farris, 17, ran over to hug Victoria.

photo by: Ashley Golledge

From left: Beckett Hutchinson, Daniel Saripalli, Victoria Rossenrode and Makayla Stein rehearse a scene of “Aladdin Jr.” at Theatre Lawrence on Monday, June 24, 2019. Saripalli plays the role of Aladdin, and Rossenrode plays the role of Jasmine. Hutchinson and Stein are peer mentors.

Victoria’s mother, Marty Rossenrode, smiled as she watched the interaction.

Over the past few months, Rossenrode has observed Victoria blossoming because of the connections she was making during the Penguin Project. The connections go beyond the theater. Recently Devin drove Victoria to a movie. It was something Victoria had never done with a friend. Then they met up afterward with Daniel Saripalli, 16, who plays Aladdin. Just normal teenage things that her daughter never had the chance to experience before.

“There’s something amazing about what’s happening between artists and mentors that gives the show something really special,” Gillespie said. “There are bonds developing between artists, between mentors, volunteers, backstage crew, everyone involved in this project.

“It has already made a lasting positive impact on everyone, and the performance is yet to come.”

Performances of Disney’s ‘Aladdin Jr.’ are 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Theatre Lawrence, 4660 Bauer Farm Drive. Tickets are available at https://wp.theatrelawrence.com/

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Tanner Hetherington, left, and Noah Jones rehearse a scene of “Aladdin Jr.” at Theatre Lawrence on Monday, June 24, 2019.

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Vivi Riffel, left, and Faith Michels rehearse a scene from “Aladdin Jr.” at Theatre Lawrence on Monday, June 24, 2019.

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Eleanor Roust, and Kelsey King sing “Friend like Me” during a rehearsal of the play “Aladdin Jr.” at Theatre Lawrence on Monday, June 24, 2019.

photo by: Ashley Golledge

From left, Elyse Hamman, Gracie Flanagan, Daniel Sarapalli, Beckett Hutchinson, Willie Dobson and Wyatt Hutchinson rehearse a scene from “Aladdin Jr.” at Theatre Lawrence on Monday, June 24, 2019.

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Bella Jaimez and her mentor, Abigayle Groves, rehearse a scene from “Aladdin Jr.” at Theatre Lawrence on Monday, June 24, 2019.


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