KAT Second Stage’s production of “Shrek the Musical JR.” will bring the “big bright beautiful world” of the 2001 DreamWorks Animation movie and the 2008 Broadway musical to the Arts Barn stage May 10 through 19. The 10 performances of the one-act show feature a cast of 32 actors, ages 9 to 17, who have been guided by a trio of committed adult mentors.
“This show features our most talented cast to date and has an important message of acceptance and a humorous celebration of diversity that is sure to please theater-goers of all ages,” said Jennifer Morrissey, the producer. The Kentlands resident also functions as “stage manager, costumer, assistant director and backstage mediator.”
Artistic Director Fred Zirm is well-acquainted with this age group. After 40 years as an English teacher and drama director at the Landon School in Bethesda, he is completing his fourth season—and eighth show—with KAT Second Stage. “Young performers have boundless energy, so it is sometimes a challenge to focus that energy, but when it does get focused through the rehearsal process, it creates memorable theater,” he said. “Similarly, young casts often include some first-time performers and some old pros. The challenge is to bring them all to first-rate performance level; the satisfaction is seeing cast after cast do so with a mixture of freshness and savvy.”
This particular show, Zirm added, “poses a couple of seemingly contradictory challenges. On one hand, it involves a large cast in a small space, but despite the large cast, many actors still have to play multiple roles and change costumes multiple times. The backstage choreography—managed by Jennifer Morrissey—will, at times, be as complicated as the onstage dance numbers.”
Choreographer Ian Brown-Gorrell likes working with young people because “they tend to teach me as much or more than I teach them,” he said. The process is different, too. “You have to listen to be successful with them. It is not just about showing them the steps. Oddly, with adults, I find I end up doing more teaching. With kids, I do more guiding and more collaborating because they bring all kinds of ideas I had not considered to the table.”
Among the young cast members Brown-Gorrell has worked with “for several years” is KAT veteran (the past eight shows) Giorgia Dallasta, the 14-year-old lifelong Kentlands resident and Lakelands Middle School eighth-grader who plays Princess Fiona. (In the interest of full disclosure, her mom is the producer.)
Dallasta “has always had 110 percent joy for what she does,” observed Brown-Gorrell, noting he shares the triple threat (singing, dancing, acting) abilities his student displays. “Through a lot of hard work, with help from mentors and a bit of good fortune, I made it through Park Point (Conservatory of the Performing Arts) and on to Broadway. She has the potential to make it, too.”
Fiona is a “dream role” for Dallasta, who has wanted to play the unconventional princess since being “captivated” by Sutton Foster’s performance in “Shrek the Musical.”
One of Dallasta’s “biggest role models,” Foster “can sing, dance, act; she can be funny or serious. She owns the stage when she performs, but she has grace. She is not a ‘diva’ about it.”
After school, Dallasta takes dance and singing lessons in addition to attending rehearsals, where “the atmosphere is welcoming and fun, but also very professional. We have fun, but the directors expect us to take our work very seriously and they expect a lot from us. They push us, but the results are worth it. We also develop very close friendships with others in the cast.”
Dallasta has Broadway aspirations. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said. Playing opposite Dallasta, as the title character, is KAT Second Stage first-timer Payton O’Keefe, a 17-year-old Our Lady of Good Counsel High School junior. No newcomer to the stage, he began acting in eighth grade; as a result of playing the title character in “Peter Pan,” he said, “I was hooked.” Previously, O’Keefe thought professional hockey would be his future. “But I found a love for theater and chose to pursue it instead.”
O’Keefe, who takes acting classes and meets with a vocal coach, said he is proudest of playing Joe Hardy in “Damn Yankees.”
“My sophomore year, I was told I wasn’t good enough to be an actor. Instead of rolling over, I worked hard over the summer to prove them wrong,” he recalled. Being nominated for two Cappies (writing and awards program that trains high school theater and journalism students to be expert writers, critical thinkers and leaders) for male vocalist and lead actor in a musical convinced him he succeeded.
From the start, O’Keefe knew the Shrek role would be challenging—“especially with the Scottish accent,” he said. Still, he persisted. “I was excited to tackle it and live his story of an outsider trying to fit in. I feel that everyone in their life at some point feels this way.”
Zoe Fischthal, a 15-year-old Lakelands resident and Arts and Ideas Sudbury School (Baltimore) ninth-grader, plays Pinocchio. Like Zirm and Dallasta, she has taken part in the past eight KAT Second Stage shows; she has acted as well as done tech and student assistant directing. “Mr. Zirm is a wonderful teacher and has a team that focuses on teaching us—whatever our knowledge level,” Fischthal said.
“The atmosphere (at rehearsals) is a little chaotic sometimes, probably because ‘Shrek’calls for a very big cast and we have a small stage,” she acknowledged. “But that is part of the process. It always comes together at the end.”
Although Fischthal has been involved in theater since fifth grade and has studied piano (since age 5) as well as voice and ballet, composing is her preferred form of expression. “I started composing music in fifth grade when Becky Pritchard (Pritchard Academy) wanted me to play something in the Halloween recital,” she recalled. “I did not like any of the choices, so she challenged me to write my own. I did, and have been writing music ever since.”
Thus far, Fischthal has been prolific. She wrote and directed a one-act musical based on Roald Dahl’s “The Witches.” Three of her compositions have won county- and state-level Reflections awards in music composition, and a fourth was a National Association for Music Education Committee Selected Composition and was part of its 2017 Young Composers Concert. After recently completing three stand-alone songs, Fischthal is “working on getting permission to write a musical based on a book.”
Despite her aspirations “to write musicals for Broadway—and maybe compose for film, too,” Fischthal is happy to be acting now. “I love playing Pinocchio—it is the only part I wanted in this show. Pretending to be a wooden puppet pretending to be a real boy has been my dream since I discovered my Pinocchio voice.” Her role models include “Shrek the Musical’s” John Tartaglia who played Pinocchio and Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the music.
What can audiences look forward to? “First of all, audiences should not expect a dumbed down aren’t they cute” version of the musical. We have a talented cast and are demanding a lot of them, so audiences should expect more than their money’s worth,” Zirm said. “I firmly believe this is a show that adults can enjoy unaccompanied by any child. Secondly, if they are not familiar with the musical version of the Shrek movie, they should expect something not only more tuneful but also, in my estimation, more touching, complex and entertaining than the film.”
Kensington Arts Theatre’s Second Stage youth program will present “Shrek the Musical Jr.” May 10, 11 12, 17, 18 and 19 at the Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road, Gaithersburg. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets, $15, are available through ticketfly (www.gaithersburgmd.gov/recreation/performing-arts/theater/shrek-jr) or by calling the Arts Barn, 301.258.6394.