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Jerry Davich: Kids take the stage in Chicago Street tradition

Rehearsal for 'The World's Worst Fairy Godmother' Chicago Street Theatre Valparaiso. | Mary D'Aloisio phoprovided by Chicago Street Theatre

Rehearsal for "The World's Worst Fairy Godmother" at the Chicago Street Theatre in Valparaiso. | Mary D'Aloisio photo provided by Chicago Street Theatre

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Updated: October 15, 2013 6:08AM



The stage at Chicago Street Theatre looked heavenly on this night.

It helped that the first scene for “The World’s Worst Fairy Godmother” is set in heaven, complete with young actors portraying angels with wings.

The intimate theater in Valparaiso was three-fourths full on this weeknight. Mostly, it was families with young kids, prompting me to quietly wonder if those restless tots could remain quiet during the hourlong performance. (An hour later, I found out they could.)

Soon, the lights went down and the action came up. It was show time.

“The World’s Worst Fairy Godmother” is a popular children’s story about Fairy Godmother Maybelle Clodnowski, portrayed wonderfully by Grace Gass. Maybelle has already messed up her 47th godmother job, each one heaven-sent, and she has one last chance to make good.

But several factors and characters will get in her way, again, despite assistance from the best fairy godmother ever, Andrea Bertch, played by Edna Prim.

The performance was delightful, filled with laughs and lessons. But what made it magical was that its cast is mostly children. Kids who began rehearsing for this show in the summer, when other region kids were already bored and whining for “something to do.”

“Our theater company has offered family plays for almost every year of this Valparaiso tradition,” said Eric Brant, a volunteer and performer for 35 years who also serves as the theater’s director of marketing.

“We also have our Children’s Theatre Works program that I’m proud to say I started 18 years ago,” Brant told me. “The program, much like the Boys and Girls Club or the YMCA, offers after-school outlets to study and train in the theatre arts from grades kindergarten through 12th grade.”

One of the theater’s first students was Carly Schroeder, who’s had a very successful career in film and television, including ABC TV’s “Port Charles” and as the lead in the movie “Gracie” with Harrison Ford.

“Carly was 6 when she studied with us,” Brant said proudly.

Gass, an 18-year-old Valparaiso University freshman, has been taking classes through CST’s programs since eighth grade. This is a familiar story arc for most children here; many are now playwrights, performers and theater activists across the country.

“Part of CST’s mission is to educate and enlighten the community with quality productions and programs for youth,” Brant said. “With the arts being cut from school budgets, what our group offers the community is vitally important now more than ever.”

I agree, yet too many Northwest Indiana families don’t know about CST and its offerings, especially for kids, teens and aspiring thespians. Children’s Theatre Works also welcomes kids who want to make costumes, become light technicians or create set designs.

“There are a million ways to get involved,” said Lisa Formosa-Parmigiano, the venue’s director of education, on a recent night.

That night happened to be the theater’s “Thursday Talk Back” show, at which the cast and director chat with the audience after the show.

“We offer these as a way of connecting with our audiences on every production,” said Formosa-Parmigiano, a graduate of the famed Actor’s Studio in New York who also teaches at Columbia College in Chicago.

She moderated the discussion while insisting to kids and parents in the audience that no one gets turned away from CST programs, regardless of skill, talent or finances.

“These are apprentice programs with elements of education,” she told them.

One of the child performers told the audience that her shyness was an obstacle at first, and another young performer said it was challenging to have a small role while waiting in the wings. “But it was all worth it,” she said with a smile.

CST has only four paid staff members. The rest are volunteers, which I found impressive considering so many of them were on hand, selling tickets, seating guests, offering snacks, you name it. There are no magic wands here, just hard work, passion and dedication.

“It’s a true community theater,” said Kari-Anne Innes, who directed “Fairy Godmother” and explained the intriguing story adaptation behind it.

The show’s final two performances are at 7 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $5 for kids and students, $10 for adults, and $8 for seniors.

In addition to the play on Saturday, CST is hosting a “Fairy Brunch” at noon with the cast at Strongbow Inn in Valparaiso with activities, photo opportunities and costume parade. That night at 7 p.m., CST will host its free “Season Preview Party,” highlighting the venue’s 59th season and its dining partners.

Upcoming shows include the family-oriented “Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” as part of its holiday “Naughty or Nice Double Feature” in November and December.

Registration for CST’s Children’s Theatre Works ends Friday, with 12-week classes beginning Sept. 23. There are loads of all-ages programs for kids, grades 1 through 12. (Did you know young arts participants are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, and three times more likely to have better school attendance?) For more info on CST shows, classes and programs, visit www.chicagostreet.org, call 464-1636, or visit 154 W. Chicago St.

Are we global minded?

Do region residents think too narrow-mindedly when it comes to global news, events and issues? I believe we do.

On my Casual Fridays radio show today at noon, we will expand our myopic region horizons to discuss international affairs with Duane Davison from the Valparaiso International Center.

“With global events — usually negative — so often in the news, it’s refreshing to share the positive impact that world culture has on our region,” Davison said.

We’ll do so by previewing Saturday’s 5th Annual World Cultural Festival, from 4 to 8 p.m. at Central Park Plaza in Valparaiso. Tune in at 89.1-FM, call in at 769-9577.



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