STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Once On This Island -- Jr.

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Once On This Island -- Jr. You may have seen Once on This Island, but have you seen Once on This Island, Jr.?

You may have seen Once on This Island, but have you seen Once on This Island, Jr.?

No, you haven't -- unless you were in Rahway, New Jersey in December. For that was the first time that the Ahrens-Flaherty hit was shown in an hour-long condensation, the latest in Music Theatre International's "Broadway, Jr." series.

Annie, Jr., Fiddler on the Roof, Jr., and Into the Woods, Jr. are a few titles that have been available since 1989, so that the grammar- and middle-school set could do less baby-ish titles than Goosy Lucy and Foxy Loxy. Once MTI decided to add Once on This Island, Jr. to the mix, it needed a school to do it, so the company could see how it would play.

MTI CEO Freddie Gershon had heard of the good work teacher Marcia Watson had done in Rahway. Here's a woman who doesn't want her high-schoolers to perform in the school auditorium -- "even though it's very nice" -- but in the Union County Arts Center, a 1928 vaudeville house that had almost been razed from downtown Rahway, until Watson and other determined volunteers resolved to save it. It's since been renovated into a handsome, gilded showplace.

Says Watson, "When our high-school basketball players are in tournaments, they play on the same court in the Meadowlands where the New Jersey Nets play. I want the same type of thing for my kids." Watson even enticed the prestigious Paper Mill Playhouse to costume her Hello, Dolly! at the Arts Center, and had her leading lady decked out in Mary Martin's duds from the original London production. Watson can delegate authority, too. So when MTI called and said they'd waive the $395 Broadway, Jr. fee just to see a production, Watson turned to Michael Barret Jones, her director of marketing. "This," she said, "would be a good project for you."

Jones, 25, has a nice theatrical pedigree. His parents met while doing a community theatre production of Plain and Fancy. "Mom was playing Scranton Sally, the hoochie-koochie girl," reports Jones, "and Dad was the patron who grabbed her leg. And he never let go."

While at Drew University in Madison, NJ, Jones staged a musical (Weird Romance), a comedy (Sister Mary Ignatius), a drama (The Shadow Box), and his own original play. Then, when interning at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, he directed the apprentices in The Stronger. He then worked with Watson, directing her high-schoolers in a one-hour version of Twelfth Night -- "set in the '60s," he says, "with sequins and Esquivel-like lounge music."

But directing twentysomethings and young adults is markedly different from the 8-13 crowd, as Jones would soon learn. The first lesson occurred in September, when he and choreographer Patrick Starega visited Rahway's five public schools. "We did half-hour presentations, played songs from the cast album, explained what auditioning was, and asked them to bring sheet music of a song they could sing."

Easier said than done. "Most kids showed up with rap records," he snarls, "and sang along with them."

So Jones had the 120 auditionees each sing "Happy Birthday," and eventually chose the most melodious 32 kids. With Rahway's high ethnic mix -- African-American, Asian, Caucasian, and Latino -- soon he had a rainbow working for him.

"But," he says, "there were tears when four girls who'd sung together to a record learned that we wanted only two of them." Ah, there's a broken heart for every light in Rahway.

Eight weeks, they rehearsed and rehearsed, two hours a day, twice a week. Jones had to deal with fifth-grade boys who didn't want to touch fifth grade girls, and eighth-grade boys who loved to touch eighth-grade girls.

Jones would have had an easier time of it, too, had he been doing, say Annie, Jr. For that show, MTI provides a libretto/vocal book, director's script, piano/voice score, production handbook, and a cross curriculum activities and enrichment book. But because this was a pilot project, Jones was just given the first two. What's more, the script wasn't as helpful to young kids as Annie's, which has 153 footnotes, ranging from "Easy Street: an expression meaning a state of financial security, wealth, and independence" to "Hoovervilles: ramshackle shantytowns that sprang up all over the nation during the Depression to house the huge numbers of homeless Americans." What Jones got was, at this point, footnoteless.

That "The Sad Tale of the Beauxhommes" was excised saddened Jones -- "because it takes out the historical background. But," he admits, "when you're reducing a 95-minute show to 60 minutes, you have to cut what's not germane to the plot."

Instead of a piano score, Jones received a piano-and-percussion disc -- but not until halfway through rehearsals. A fully orchestrated one arrived just before tech week. "It was okay," he sighs. "Knowing this was a pilot, I accepted that as part of the project."

Three weeks, and it couldn't've been worse. Five kids bolted. Jones admitted there were times when he almost threw down his script on the stage and walked, but he and Starega survived thanks to a good cop-bad cop battle plan.

"When the kids acted up, Patrick would say, 'Thanks for rehearsing -- now call your mother and have her come get you.' During the noisy times, I would just stand there and wait for everyone to get quiet. Screaming 'Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!' doesn't work. Taking aside older kids and saying, 'You know, the younger kids are looking up to you,' helped them become leaders. Once they fell in line, the younger kids did, too."

Not always, of course. Jones credits Sharon Mason, whose son Bruce had a featured role. "She was rehearsal hall monitor, handed out bathroom passes, coordinated food on tech days, and helped boost morale."

One week -- will it ever be right? Some kids were lazy with their lyrics, and days before the planned December 3 debut, Jones laid down the ultimatum. "I told them I was going to pick two songs, and would make them write down the lyrics to prove they knew them. 'And,' I said to the cast, 'What do you think I should do with the kids who don't know them?'"

With a lack of leniency appropriate to Roman emperors, the kids decreed that slackers should be sacked. Jones wouldn't go that far, but decided to take the numb ones out of the numbers.

Came the fateful day when Jones passed out pens and photocopied papers that already spotted them the verses to "We Dance" and "Pray," and told them "Write the rest of the lyrics."

Fourteen of them flunked -- including Sharon Mason's son.

"That was really hard," says Jones. "But I did what I had to do and took him out." (Somewhere in heaven -- or somewhere else -- Abbott, Robbins, Fosse, and Bennett are nodding in agreement.)

Sharon and son took the consequences with grace. Meanwhile, local resident Susan Keat was coordinating costumes, getting some from thrift shops, building others such as culottes and sarongs.

Then out of the hat, it's that big first night. The $4,000 production, with a backstage crew culled from Watson's Rahway High kids, opened. I was there, and can attest that the production came together beautifully. And keep an eye out for little Angella Ford, a chorus girl who's destined for many better roles.

Adds Jones, "One Rahway principal said he couldn't believe we could get the boy playing one of the gods to learn lines and staging, and commit to a project, because he was supposedly a 'bad' kid." He shakes his head and smiles. "No, he wasn't, after all."

Also attending was Tim McDonald, the project director from MTI. "Brilliant!" he says. "The essence of Once on This Island is about passing on stories to new generations. When you apply that to children, it becomes more poignant and beautiful. At the end of the show, when the little girl began telling the little boy the story all over again, it was a tear-jerking moment that gave me chills... "Every time we introduce a new title, we wonder if kids are going to respond to it. These kids were so enthusiastic about the music and the story, we knew we'd be fine."

The pilot program also served its purpose in informing McDonald what still needed to be done. "We discovered that it was edited too much, so we put back the song, 'Ti Moune.' We also saw some keys had to be altered by a half-step here and there. And we've since met with Ahrens and Flaherty to scour where the footnotes should be."

McDonald was soon talking to Jones about doing Bugsy, the London adaptation of Bugsy Malone, next year. Watson was so impressed with the youngsters, she cast more than half of them in the chorus of her Rahway High production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It played last weekend -- at, of course, the Union County Arts Center.

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theatre critic for the Star-Ledger. You may Email him at Pfilichia@aol.com