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Jeter Backyard Theater debuted ‘secret’ production in Atlanta

Karen Price
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Bella Fritz, and Elise Duckworth, both 10, Eden Hall Upper Elementary students, in the production of “Frozen Junior.” Bella Fritz, and Elise Duckworth, both 10, Eden Hall Upper Elementary students, in the production of “Frozen Junior.”

For months, students and teachers at Jeter Backyard Theater had to hold tight to a secret and couldn’t let it go.

Finally the big reveal came the weekend of Jan. 19-20 at the 2019 iTheatrics Junior Theater Festival in Atlanta where they debuted selections from Disney’s “Frozen Junior” at the New Works Showcase. The performing arts school in Pine was chosen by Disney Theatrical Productions to take part in the pilot program in which they developed the Broadway show into an age-appropriate musical for middle and high school students to perform as part of Music Theater International’s Broadway Junior series.

“We were chosen to do ‘Frozen,’ I believe, because we’ve piloted in the past for them and done a really, really good job,” said Christie Jeter, executive and creative director of Jeter Backyard Theater. “It’s also very contingent upon your ability to honor the privacy agreement when you’re dealing with Disney. For instance, we had 425 kids going through the summer program (working on the musical) and nothing was allowed to be posted on social media. Usually you’d love to advertise something like this, but we couldn’t because it was all private.”

Jeter Backyard Theater, which regularly holds classes and camps for students ages 4 to 18, has piloted musicals in the past for the Broadway Junior series, including Disney’s “Freaky Friday” and “Junie B. Jones Jr.”

“Frozen,” however, is the biggest named show they’ve ever been asked to pilot, Jeter said.

“When we do (a pilot) we get a very rough script and music and are part of the process of making it into an appropriate junior version,” she said. “Some of the ranges might change, some of the language might change and the length of the show is cut down for middle school and high school performers.”

They worked on the show all summer long with their campers, and even though the kids went crazy when they got the scripts, they weren’t allowed to send anything home or publicize what they were doing. They billed the summer program as “The Coolest Summer Ever” to the public, but that was as much as they could say.

As the students worked through the script and performances, Jeter had to send back videos of what they were doing, photos of costumes and sets, and mountains of notes and paperwork regarding what worked and what didn’t, what she’d change and what problems arose.

Members of the theater’s invitation-only team then presented selections from the musical, as chosen by Disney, at the festival in Atlanta to coincide with the announcement that the script is now available for licensing.

Ten-year-old Elise Duckworth, who attends Eden Hall Upper Elementary, played Young Elsa. A big fan of the movie, she said getting ready to perform on a big stage in front of the 6,500 theater festival attendees from all over the world was a little stressful.

“I think first coming on stage and seeing all those people so happy and excited, that was the best part for me,” Elise said.

Bella Fritz, also 10 years old and a student at Eden Hall, played Young Anna.

“She’s a lot like me,” Fritz said of playing a Young Anna. “She’s very jumpy and happy and always asking her sister to play with her. It was so much fun to play her because I got to jump around and play around.”

She also said it was a bit shocking to be on such a big stage in front of so many people, but “incredible” at the same time.

She was also happy to finally be able to tell her friends about being a part of “Frozen Junior.”

“They thought it was amazing,” she said. “At first one didn’t believe it, but then they were like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ after I showed them the video.”

Members of Jeter Backyard Theater also participated in the adjudicated portion of the festival and won the award for Excellence in Music for “Mary Poppins Junior.”

Karen Price is a
Tribune-Review contributor.