Just minutes before 9-year-old Shelby Giloth took the stage at First Baptist Church of Oak Park to belt out “Tomorrow” from Annie, she was fidgeting in a church pew, waiting for her number to be called.

Leading up to her one-minute audition for Spotlight Youth Theater’s upcoming production of Hairspray Jr. , the third-grader at Longfellow Elementary School in Oak Park said she had her eye on the role of Little Inez — a “strong and brave” African American girl who can sing, dance and enjoys performing in front of an audience not unlike herself.

“At home I have been singing and practicing my lines every day, and it is very fun,” she said, as her parents, Sara and Dan Giloth of Oak Park, looked on. “To help my voice, I gargled salt water [because] I sing in the night, I sing in the morning, I sing in the evening, and I even sing at school sometimes.”

Although Shelby did not land that role, the little girl with the big voice will be in the cast of 83 Oak Park-area youth — 22 of them from Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park — who will stage Hairspray Jr., April 23-26 at Guerin Prep High School’s Cuny Auditorium, 8001 Belmont Ave., in River Grove.

Showtime

Spotlight Youth Theater, which began as an affiliate of a Christian youth theater organization in San Diego in 1981, is now a regional program with 12 different satellite companies in Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin. It leapt to life in Oak Park in 2008, offering fee-based theater education programming, as well as summer camp experiences, for kids age 5-18. 

 Children with special needs, who might need assistance to participate in classes and productions, are welcome. 

Cost for once-per-week, 10-session voice, dance, drama or theatrical specialty classes at Judson Baptist Church, 1252 N. Austin Blvd. in Oak Park, is $180, said Marge Molica, the nonprofit’s Oak Park-area coordinator. However, to audition and be cast in Hairspray Jr., for example, there is an additional production fee of $75.

“You can take a class and not do the production, but to do the production, you must do the class,” Molica said, adding that kids must be 8 years old to audition, plus with each production comes the requirement of 20 hours of parent volunteerism. 

“Our mission and values are Judeo-Christian. However, anyone can take our classes and do our musical theater productions. What we hold to are certain standards, so we will pray at the beginning and end of rehearsal,” Molica said, “but no one is forced to pray. We do have optional worship, but no one is forced to go to that. Everyone is just asked to be courteous, so I think families are drawn to the community we create and because of that, oftentimes a kid who feels like they do not ‘fit’ in another environment, fit in here.”

 Getting parents involved

Last fall, Sara Giloth, a parent volunteer who serves on the marketing committee, said Shelby was a Londoner and orphan (in the chorus) of Oliver! and in January she was a “Who” in a cast of 66 in Spotlight’s production of Seussical Jr., which was staged at The Oak Park Arts Center, 200 N. Oak Park Ave.

“When we came to Spotlight, we were thrilled that there were lots of African American families, with children like Shelby and a decent number of other transracial adoptive families in this group,” said Sara. “For us, that is very much something we are looking for because we want to be involved in programs that embrace a diverse group of children and their families.”

Post-audition, 12-year-old Rory Higgins-Urban learned she is joining Shelby in the show’s Baltimore chorus. Her dad, Tod Urban, a self-described lawyer-turned-volunteer-backstage-crew-guy, is happily in tow for his youngster’s fourth show.

“When you first sign up, and they say you have to sign on for 20 hours of volunteerism, and be on a committee to do it, you think, ‘Really? What have I gotten myself into?'” Urban said. “I may be a little bit more excited about it than she is because I get to see my friends again, people I might have never met because otherwise our paths probably would not have crossed.”

In Hairspray Jr., Joseph Zawacki, 13, was cast as Brad, one of the “Nicest Kids in Town.” Earlier in Spotlight’s 2014/15 season, he portrayed The Artful Dodger in Oliver! 

“I absolutely love Spotlight because it is very, very fun getting to have the experience of doing all that musical theater,” says Zawacki, a seventh-grader at St. Giles. “Social skills — it really helps with those. But the really good part is meeting all the people from Oak Park and other places. I have done three shows, and I am about to do my fourth, so I have met at least a hundred new people.”

 Stage frightless 

 Prior to her audition, Rory, a sixth-grader at Brooks Middle School, proclaimed that she is “a theater kid,” having gotten her start in the third grade when her parents enrolled her in the Oak Park middle school BRAVO! and CAST programs.

“It is really fun to sing and dance in front of a bunch of people,” she said. “When I get out there, I’m not scared. No, really … I like it.”

Also lending Shelby support that day was her dad, Dan Giloth, who describes himself as a Buddhist who feels at home in what he calls a welcoming environment for him and his daughter.

In particular, he is struck by the professionalism of the directors, choreographers and voice coaches, as well as Spotlight’s peer-to-peer mentoring approach, where Shelby has been paired with a “show sib,” who has more stage experience, and is now showing her the ropes.

“At Spotlight, it’s like you have a bunch of brothers and sisters to help you out,” Shelby said, adding that she is honored to be in the cast, and is looking forward to opening night. “Hairspray is my favorite movie. I watch it almost every week, and, I just love it,” she said. “At the end of Hairspray, Tracy starts dancing on the Corny Collins TV show, and invites all the blacks to dance on the TV show with her. So now there is no more segregation. It’s integration.”

As the song goes, “We’ve come so far, but we’ve got so far to go.”

Tickets are available by calling 847-516-2298 or visiting www.spotlight.org. 

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....

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