URBANA — The Champaign Urbana Theatre Company's second Penguin Project — described as "social change disguised as theater" — will be "Disney's Mulan Jr.," to be presented at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
The performances will be at the Urbana High School Cobb Auditorium, 1002 S. Race St. Tickets range from $8 to $12.
The cast features more than 50 youngsters plus their mentors, all ranging in age from 9 to 20 years old. Children with developmental disabilities take on the roles and are joined on stage by mentors — peers without disabilities who work alongside them and guide them through the production process.
Dr. Andy Morgan, a developmental pediatrician in Peoria, founded the Penguin Project in 2004 after having seen what theater can do for participants.
"I realized how valuable it is in developing social and communication skills and self-esteem, and I noticed how my patients — children with special needs — often have difficulty with communication and self-confidence," Morgan told The News-Gazette in 2016. "By watching my own children and their involvement in theater, I noticed these are skills that theater brings out. It made sense to put them together."
Morgan named the program the Penguin Project for two reasons: Penguins are his favorite bird, and they are birds with special needs because they can't fly.
"They have to negotiate through an unfriendly environment and do it together and with great joy," he said.
Likewise, "Disney's Mulan Jr." honors a fighting spirit, with songs such as "Honor to Us All" and "I'll Make a Man Out of You" — as well as new music composed for the production by Stephen Schwartz.
"The story also emphasizes that one must never give up on what they know to be right in spite of tradition," said director Brian Hagy. "This can easily be translated to the worlds of people with disabilities, that an individual with a disability should only be limited by their own interest and not by a standard."
Starring in "Mulan Jr." are:
— Mulan, Samantha Hamilton, a freshman at Mahomet-Seymour High School, with mentor Sarah Stelzer, a junior at Urbana High.
— Mushu, Conlan Broyles, a fourth-grader at Washington School, Monticello, with mentor Emerson Snook, a classmate.
— Capt. Shang, Alex Tartakovsky, a fifth-grader at Thomas Paine, Urbana, with mentor Cathi Li, a Champaign Central junior.
CUTC Executive Director Kelly Nowlin said the community came together again to support the Penguin Project. The Urbana school district offered the high school auditorium for the performances, and UHS students are mentoring the cast and several will work behind the scenes.
Also, Champaign Urbana Special Recreation provided a rehearsal space throughout the four-month process.