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Constance Alexander: Penguin Project ‘miracle’ brings production of Guys & Dolls, Jr. to Playhouse stage

A miracle occurred at Murray’s Playhouse in the Park last week. In rehearsal on Tuesday, actors and their mentors were uncertain about lines, blocking, cues, and props. By Friday, however, the cast was mostly off book and in tune, their entrances and exits properly timed and executed. Some had even developed appropriate “New Yawk” accents for the upcoming production of “Guys & Dolls, Jr.,” slated for performances September 15–24 at the community theatre on Gil Hopson Drive.

By nature, theatre is a collaborative process, but the Penguin Project takes that idea and flies with it. This unique program invites young people with disabilities, ages 10-25, to present a junior version of a Broadway musical. Watching the production lift off the ground is a magical experience.

Actors/artists — with disabilities including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual and learning disorders, visual or hearing impairments, and other neurological disorders — are paired with age-appropriate mentors, who provide support and encouragement, onstage and off, from the first read through to the bravos at the end.

Lasting friendships form, confidence builds, and everyone involved shares in the joy and excitement of watching young artists breathe life into the characters and their stories. Since 2014, Playhouse in the House has been part of the project, and the impact extends beyond local boundaries and into participants of every age group.

Serenity Dunn has volunteered at the Playhouse since she was in high school. Last year, she was a Penguin Project mentor and this year she is Stage Manager. In that capacity, she pairs artists with mentors and makes sure they get on stage at the right time, in the right place. Her responsibilities are to deal with whatever comes up. In short, she makes sure everyone has what they need, when they need it.

(Photo by Marci Gardner-Edmonds)

Being involved is a commitment, but the rewards outweigh any challenges. “Coming in from a rough day at work and seeing the joy on their faces” makes it worth the effort, according to Serenity.

Murray Middle School’s Arlo and her classmate Alice take pleasure in helping each other remember choreography as they work with their artists.

“It’s pretty fun,” Alice says. “Arlo persuaded me to do it.”

Brooke, from Benton, portrays Adelaide. As that character, she has been engaged to Nathan Detroit for fourteen years. When she discovers her long engagement might be the reason for her lingering cold, she sings her song, “Adelaide’s Lament.”

Between rehearsals on Tuesday and Friday, Brooke displayed an impressive transformation. In a few days, she honed her accent to sound like she could be from Brooklyn when she sings, “The average unmarried female/basically insecure/due to some long frustration may react/with psychological symptoms difficult to endure/affecting her upper respiratory tract.”

In other words, “A person can develop a cold.”

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Cameron plays Nathan Detroit, the fiancée. He admits “it was weird at first” to be engaged. “But it’s necessary to do it,” he added. “It’s part of the play. Nathan is different from me. He has a different personality.”

All the way from Clinton, Ky., Hunter is Nathan/Cameron’s mentor. This is his first year in that capacity and he is learning, “Patience is a virtue.” In addition, he has discovered, “how rewarding it is to give back to the community.”

Director of “Guys & Dolls Jr.,” Holly Bloodworth brings years of experience, onstage and off. A former Kentucky Teacher of the Year, devoted Playhouse in the Park volunteer, and former board president, she spins her special magic into a process that demands patience and insight. As kids and adults come into rehearsal, Holly is often the one they hug, and she always offers a smile and encouraging words.

When she booms, “Quiet please!” everyone on set responds. When she coaches actors and mentors, her tone is serene and sincere. She helps build confidence when she says things like, “If you make a mistake, you learn how to cover it.”

Like Holly Bloodworth, Music Director Stephen D. Keene has a long history with Playhouse in the Park.

“Twenty-four years ago,” he reveals, “my first show at Playhouse was ‘Guys & Dolls Jr.’”

Comparing that production to the Penguin Project, he sees similarities and differences. “These kids…” he gestures toward the stage, “It’s neat to work with the artists and mentors, to see them working together.”

“The expectations are the same,” he continues, saying that the focus is on enjoying the experience and entertaining the audience.

Everyone involved in Penguin Project productions wants to hit it out of the park. There are no near misses as the young actors reach for the stars.

“Guys & Dolls Jr.” is sponsored by Independence Bank and Peel & Holland Insurance. Tickets are available online at www.playhousemurray.org. Contact the Playhouse at 270-759-1752.

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One Comment

  1. Sherry Ledford says:

    My one regret about leaving Kentucky and moving back home to New York is that I moved away from my Penguin Family. I cherish the memories of our time spent there. Break a leg to all of the cast. Have fun, and don’t forget how special you all are.

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