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In Penguin Project play, everybody plays

‘Aladdin Jr.’ puts spotlight on developmentally disabled

“Everyone plays” is the motto for the American Youth Soccer Organization.

The same goes for Penguin Project, the program that stages a play featuring young actors (known as “artists”) with developmental disabilities, including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, visual impairment, hearing impairment and other neurological disorders.

They are assisted on stage by a dedicated group of “mentors” — children the same age without disabilities who work side by side with them in rehearsals through the final performance.

Ottawa’s Jeff Houk — director of the musical “Aladdin Jr.,” which debuts Friday in Streator — said the philosophy is the same for Penguin Project.

“Everyone who comes in is accepted — artists and mentors,” said Houk, noting “Aladdin Jr.” artists reside in Streator, Ottawa, Seneca and La Salle-Peru. “We’ll take anyone who can get a ride to the theater.”

Houk and the others involved in producing “Aladdin Jr.” usually don’t have to worry about artists and mentors slacking off or showing up late.

“They’re enthusiastic. There isn’t a lot to do in the Illinois Valley for kids who have disabilities. ... For a lot of these kids, this is the only thing they have to look forward to,” he said.

Several of the artists return from “Annie Jr.,” which in 2018 kicked off the Penguin Project production. One is 16-year-old Michael McGuire, who plays Prince Abdullah, who was excited to revisit “Annie Jr.” cohorts.

“I wanted to come back. I had fun,” he said.

For Ottawa’s Aaron Noble, the play is a new experience.

“My mom told me about it. She wanted me to learn more people skills. I’m making a lot of new friends,” said the 15-year-old, who portrays the Genie. His mentor is Streator’s Ethan Darrow.

“I guess he’s my best friend now. (My mom) wanted me to make friends with somebody. And the plan succeeded,” Noble said.

Maddie Redfern-Hofbauer, a 17-year-old junior at Woodland High School, has been active in school and Community Players of Streator productions. She’s also one of the play’s choreographers and decided to be a mentor when she found out more were needed.

“I want to major in special education. I love to interact with children,” Redfern-Hofbauer said. “There have been some difficult parts, but it’s been an awesome experience.”

Redfern-Hofbauer is serving as mentor for Emmy Pizano.

“Emmy and I have become such good friends,” said the South Streator resident. “If it wasn’t for this, I wouldn’t have made so many friends and found my interest in special education.”

“Aladdin Jr.” is so inclusive that a four-legged artist is a member of the cast. That would be Kya, a bulldog who also was in “Annie Jr.” In “Aladdin Jr.,” Kya, a service dog, plays the pet tiger of Princess Jasmine and is owned by Jeromy Lawton. Jeromy’s son, Devin, plays Aladdin, and another son, Kaleb, is a mentor in the musical.

Kathy Missel is president of Community Players of Streator, whose performance space — the William C. Schiffbauer Center for the Performing Arts at Engle Lane — is the host of Penguin Project.

“It is one of the most moving things ever,” she said in an email interview. “I was thrilled when the Board of Directors voted to move forward with this project. As someone who has participated in theater for most of my life, I never stopped to consider that there were barriers to participation that I wasn't aware of.

“From the very first get-acquainted meeting, it was incredibly moving to see the artists and mentors work together. You can easily see the bonds that these young people form with each other, and they extend beyond the boundaries of the theater. I can't wait to see this year's production featuring many more mentors and artists on stage than last year's inaugural show.

“My goal was to get kids with disabilities in lead roles. The second was to have kids with disabilities, and without, to connect,” Houk explained.

Noble said the four-month rehearsal schedule has been difficult, but said the experience might make him want to try acting again.

“It’s trying to be hilarious all the time,” he said.

Work of the mentors has made an impact in Starved Rock Country, Houk said. The shows are expected to be sellouts.

“The people in the community are so excited. There’s such local support because they love seeing kids being so enthusiastic. And it’s so contagious. Last year was so heartwarming,” he said.

To go

• "Aladdin Jr.," a Penguin Project musical, will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 12, and Saturday, April 13, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 14, in the William C. Schiffbauer Center for the Performing Arts at Engle Lane, 1012 Columbus Road, Streator.

• Ticket information is available by calling the center at 815-672-3584, or visiting englelane.org.

Meet the cast

The cast of "Aladdin Jr.," listed by character, artist and mentor:

Aladdin: Devin Lawton

Genie: Aaron Noble (Ethan Darrow)

Jasmine: Kira Pastirik (Katelyn Flanigan)

Sultan: Jamie Martin (Corinne Francis)

Jafar: Robbie Lake

Iago: Theresa Benckendorf (Abby Mascal)

Iago in Flight: Kyle Pastirik (Chantel Hanlon, Emily Lopez)

Razoul: Dylan Applebee (Rebekah Chapman)

Guard: Drake Flanigan (Rheagan Goluba)

Abu: Maegan Walton (Zoe Penkala, Cioni Kosur)

Rajah: Emmy Pizano (Maddie Redfern-Hofbauer)

Manal/ Street Vendor: Jacque LeRette (Eliza Missel)

Isir: Jessica Swietek (Lydia Schultz)

Babkak: Grayson Stellfplug (Cara Powers)

Omar: Evan Lake

Kassim: Harley Kosur (Kaleb Lawton)

Apple Vendor: Sayge Shelton (Olivia Smith)

Beggar: Christina Kluzek (Madison Applebee)

Spooky Voice/ Cave of Wonders: Kaleb Lawton

Prince Abdullah: Michael McGuire (Abby Leskanich)

Street Vendor: Brittany Smith (Cayla Weygand)

Attendant/ Street Vendor: Jeffrey Vaughn (Annie Bangert)

Jasmine’s Pet Tiger: Kya Lawton (Katelyn Flanigan)

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