The fall’s a fine time to immerse your family in the magic of Portland’s vibrant musical arts scene, from Little Orphan Annie to rousing rock anthems to — say what? — squirrels singing doo-wop. Take your pick from a high-energy assortment of musical theater productions, plus some good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll gigs, all headlined by some of the city’s most talented young musicians and performers.

Journey Theater Arts Group: Teach The Kids to Sing

It takes a lot of love — and a whole lot of helping hands — to bring a piece of musical theater to life. And at Journey Theater Arts Group, the staging of exuberant, splashy shows, like an upcoming fall production of Annie, is always a family affair.

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As is the case with many Journey shows, Annie will be performed exclusively by youth performers, ages 8 to 18, from the title character to Daddy Warbucks to the scheming Miss Hannigan. But while the young performers strut their stuff onstage, their family members will form the “backbone” of the performance, says Annie Director Starleen Benke, with parents pitching in on everything from building sets and managing the house to running concessions and preparing props.

“We’re all about the kids and letting them use their gifts and the talent onstage,” she says. “All the adults involved are really just there to help the kids.”

It’s not uncommon for young actors in the school’s education program to perform in 20-plus shows at Journey Theater before aging out. In that time, says Benke, they grow by leaps and bounds, becoming bolder, more disciplined and more mature. The unique demands of musical theater raise that bar even higher, she adds: “To be a lead, we challenge them to become what we call a triple threat: dance well, sing well and act well.”

The story of Little Orphan Annie takes audiences on an “emotional journey” peppered with classic, well-loved songs. Among the directorial challenges Benke’s preparing to surmount: casting a four-legged friend to play Annie’s faithful sidekick, “Sandy,” then getting that dog to follow stage commands. But Annie will have a secret weapon at her disposal, promises Benke: a pocket in that signature red-and-white dress, made just for treats.

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Musical theater shows like this one are great for young audience members getting their first taste of live performance, says Benke: “It’s always active so young people don’t get bored. It’s constantly changing, which is what young people want — their minds want to constantly be moved along. ”

On the ticket this fall: Annie, Imago Theater – November 2-18.

Also Playing: Journey Theater Arts Group will stage additional shows around the Portland metro area throughout fall and winter, including: The Wizard of Oz at Alpenrose Opera House in October, The Lion King Jr. at Fort Vancouver High School this November, and SCROOGE: The Musical at Washburn Performing Arts Center at Washougal High School in late November.

School of Rock: Songs in the Key of Fun

When it comes to a rock ’n’ roll education, riffing with audiences and getting on with bandmates is just as vital a skill as slaying on guitar. Thirteen-year-old Lyla Meier is learning this firsthand at School of Rock Portland, thanks to a busy schedule of one-on-one lessons, group band practices and regular live performances. “It’s about staying loose and not being afraid to talk to the audience,” she says. “That’s in my muscle memory now.”

Meier, whose brother also attends School of Rock, grew up in a musical family. In addition to singing chops, she’s devoted herself to developing skills on the violin, silver flute and keys. Now she’s ready to rock a bass guitar.

At School of Rock, Meier and other budding musicians study and perform works from a broad spectrum of genres and artists — thus far, she’s tackled everything from Queen to Talking Heads to pop and experimental funk.

Live music performance connects performances and audiences in a different, more immediate way than a play or a stand-up comedy act might, says Meier, and she loves that: “The audience as a whole doesn’t feel so much like they have to pay attention or clap at a certain time or laugh. With music you can pay attention, or you can also just listen.”

Meier’s also a member of the School of Rock House Band, a gigging band that regularly performs at top-ticket venues around the city. Being cast into house band is “no joke,” says School of Rock Music Director David Coniglio. It requires a high level of musicianship, and members are tasked with mastering 25 to 30 songs per season. But it’s not all work and no play. Coniglio, a working musician with a degree from Berklee College of Music, says that a lifetime of performing has taught him that music simply sounds better when the people playing it are having a good time: “If you hit a bad note, it doesn’t really matter. As long as you believe in yourself and have fun with it, that goes way further than being a monster musician on a certain instrument. No one cares about that … It’s about the whole experience.”

On the ticket this fall: Performances featuring School of Rock
Portland students are slated around Portland throughout the season. For more info, visit: 
schoolofrock.com/events.

Northwest Children’s Theater and School: A Bumpy, Bouncy Adventure

If you’ve been on the lookout for a golden opportunity to introduce your littlest littles to the wonders of live performance, NWCT’s current show might prove just the ticket.

This fall, the theater will feature a revamp of Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play!, inspired by the beloved Mo Willems children’s book series and suggested for audience members ages 3 and up. Lead characters (and “bestus” friends) Elephant and Piggie will keep kids giggling and guessing through an interactive 55 minutes of song and dance.

“The book is very beloved, and [the play’s] a great introduction to musical theater,” says NWCT Associate Artistic Director John Ellingson, who will reprise his role as Gerald the Elephant. “This is a great way to get kids interested in seeing the arts.”

Like much of Willems’ work, the show includes plenty of silliness and smart wordplay, plus that group of doo-wop-singing squirrels, but it also tackles big, bold, preschool-friendly themes as Elephant and Piggie explore the paradox of sharing and the complexities of early friendships.

The production, staged by an intimate cast of six, (including four kid singing, acting, dancing triple threats) bears all the markings of a classic NWCT theater experience, Ellingson adds: “We like our shows to be immersive and a little more rowdy, and this show came to us with a lot of that. It fits into our style of musical theater. It’s a bumpy, bouncy show.”

Pulling off any musical theater production presents special challenges, he admits: Performers are acting, singing and dancing all at once, which requires considerable stamina. And when the cast is small, the audience is pint-sized, and the costumes are fur-lined, those challenges are amplified.

But when it comes to children’s musical theater, says Ellingson, the complexity is part of the glory. Young audience members process the themes and emotions of a performance in real-time, and that’s something beautiful to behold, from onstage or off.

“They’re so eager to be present and in the moment,” he says. “They’re just right there with you.”

Showing this fall: Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play! NWCT Mainstage – September 22 to October 21.

Also Playing: Treat yourself to a spoonful of song and dance with NWCT’s winter production of Mary Poppins — a classic film turned Broadway hit. NWCT Mainstage —
December 8 to January 6.

Oregon Children’s Theatre: New Discoveries, Set to Sound

As a young girl captivated by all things theatrical, Sophia Takla was hungry for heroines who did more than bat their eyelashes and twirl their hair.

She got her wish with Ella Enchanted, — a book-turned-movie-turned-musical featuring a more relatable brand of princess — Ella of Frell, who struggles to find her own voice after being cursed at birth with the “gift” of obedience. “Every other Disney movie and princess tale was about a damsel in distress who met a guy,” says Takla. “This show is about Ella and her journey of self-discovery.”

Takla’s been on her own journey of discovery ever since she began performing in first grade. Now she’s 17, and this Jesuit High School senior is preparing to channel her atypical heroine in OCT’s upcoming musical stage production of Ella Enchanted.

Developing musical theater proficiency is sort of like learning to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time, notes show Director/Choreographer Jessica Wallenfels: It’s a skill you master slowly, with a little persistence and a lot of practice. “There’s this kinship between the performers and the audience. Something really magical and difficult is happening across the footlights … Every soaring chord or somber note, you feel,” Wallenfels says.

There’s also an element of serendipity to this kind of acting, says Takla, with each performance taking actors and audience members along for the ride: “You’re making new discoveries in the moment, and it’s a little different every night.”

Playing Ella will definitely require verve. Acting, singing and dancing in unison is an endurance sport as much as an art. But Takla’s ready.

“Forget Disneyland,” she says. “OCT is the happiest place on earth!”

On the ticket this fall: Ella Enchanted, Newmark Theatre – October 20 to November 18.

Also Playing: Just in time for Halloween, OCT’s Young Professionals Company will premiere Shiver: A Musical Ghost Story — a cold-weather tale of mystery, revelation and terror. YP Studio Theater, October 26 to November 11.

MORE NOTEWORTHY MUSICAL OFFERINGS

PORTLAND OPERA: Have Arias, Will Travel

A bilingual, shortened adaptation of a classic Spanish opera bursts to life when the Portland Opera takes The Barber of Seville on the road this October as part of its Opera to Go program. The show will visit various community centers around Portland. For more info, visit: portlandopera.org/pogo-2018/.

OREGON BALLET THEATRE: Enrapture of the Deep

Older kids will be swept away by the rich opulence of Napoli, a classical Danish story ballet premiering at OBT this October. This uplifting love story features colorful costumes and rich “underwater” backdrops. There’s even a sea nymph or two. For more info, visit: obt.org/18-19-season/napoli/.

OREGON SYMPHONY: Avast, Ye!

A merry band of pirates takes over the Oregon Symphony this November in Pirates! — the first Kids Concert of the season. Enjoy music from HookPeter Pan, and more. Come back Thanksgiving weekend for Disney in Concert, a multimedia showpiece featuring music from the scores of beloved classics like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Frozen. For more info, visit: orsymphony.org/concerts-tickets/.

Erin J. Bernard is a freelance writer and editor living the dream in Northeast Portland, where she resides with her husband and their bossy 2-yearold daughter. She spends her (nonexistent) free time eating tamales, scoping out garage sales, and blogging about the creative life at ejbwritingstudio.com.

Erin Bernard
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