URBANA — This is a “Frozen Jr.” you’ll never forget.
The Champaign Urbana Theatre Company’s Penguin Project production of the Disney adaptation stars 32 special-needs artists, assisted by peer mentors.
Showtimes are 7 p.m. today and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Urbana High’s Cobb Auditorium.
The musical is based on the 2013 Disney film and the 2018 Broadway adaptation. It’s directed by Jaclyn Loewenstein, with musical direction by Debra Myers and choreography by Courtney Davies.
Locally, organizations such as the Champaign County Down Syndrome Network, Sinai Temple and the Urbana School District have been involved, noted Kelly Nowlin, executive director of the theater company.
Young artists have a wide spectrum of special needs, including Down syndrome, autism-spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy and ADHD.
“These areas of improvement are a big reason I wanted to bring the Penguin Project to our area,” Nowlin said.
“I found out about the program at a theater management conference back in 2013, before I started working for CUTC, and knew someday I wanted to be involved in the program in some way.”
Nowlin was especially motivated.
“It was important to me because I had already experienced the benefits of being involved in theater through my twin sons, who both have mild cerebral palsy. Early on, theater helped both my boys connect with others and build their communication skills.”
Loewenstein has been involved with the Penguin Project since CUTC began the program four years ago.
“I choreographed ‘Aladdin Jr.’ and ‘Mulan Jr.,’ and co-directed ‘High School Musical Jr.’ with Sue Aldridge,” she recalled.
The Penguin Project started in Peoria in 2004. It has become a national program with sites in 15 states throughout the country.
Participation in the program enhances social skills, communication skills and self-esteem, said Dr. Andy Morgan, the founder of the Penguin Project.
He is a developmental pediatrician — and community-theater player — in the Peoria area and saw the need to develop these areas in his patients, given the lack of opportunities available.
In “Frozen Jr.,” there are 32 artists (young people with disabilities) “who are each paired with a peer mentor,” Loewenstein said.
“Mentors rehearse and perform alongside their artist throughout the four-month program. Though they don’t have any lines or solos, mentors participate in ensemble numbers and are always there to support, shadow and guide their artist as needed.”
Loewenstein called it “an honor to be the first local theater company to bring ‘Frozen Jr.’ to the stage, and even more of an honor to work with our community of ‘Penguins,’ who bring so much passion and joy to the production experience.”
Adapted for young performers, this musical includes favorite “Frozen” songs such as “Love Is an Open Door,” “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and “Let It Go,” as well as new songs from the Broadway production.
“The Penguin Project provides a truly unique experience for young people who are not often in the spotlight,” the director said.