EPAC campers ‘let it go’ and get hands-on to present ‘Frozen Jr.’

By on August 7, 2019

Principal actors in “Frozen Jr.” included (left to right) Carlos Kohls, Damian Hemsley, Jenna Eisenhauer, Zachary Sensenig, Ethan McClung, Sheridan MacKenzie, and Dallas Means. This photo was taken after Monday’s performance. (Photo courtesy of Kacy Byers MacKenzie)


For the first time in forever … Irving Gonzalez had a new direction. After five years manning the helm of EPAC’s Center Stage Theater Camp, Gonzalez wanted to hear from parents and past campers. After last summer, he informally gathered opinions, concerns, and recommendations.

“What I learned is that parents and campers wanted to narrow the experience down to basic performance. We knew that we had something unique with our (educational) content, but we had to recognize that our kids are always trying to perform,” said Gonzalez.

‘Disney’s Frozen Jr.’

Gonzalez’s summer goal for camp season six was set early. He wanted campers to take ownership of a production. So, this year’s camp produced and presented two showings of “Disney’s Frozen Jr.” Monday, Aug. 5 to sold out audiences at the Sharadin Bigler Theatre.

Since becoming available in January, “Disney’s Frozen Jr.” has been popular with young actors in schools and on community stages nationwide. The show is a 60-minute adaptation of the Broadway musical based on the 2013 Academy Award-winning movie, which is the highest grossing animated film of all time worldwide. According to licensing agency Music Theatre International, the “condensed version is designed specifically for middle schoolers and features all the songs heard in the movie, plus five numbers written specifically for the stage musical.”

Because of its popularity, the musical seemed like a good place to start when teaching kids every step involved with a production, explained Gonzalez. Campers not only filled the roles as actors, but also served as stage managers, choreographers, directors, etc. under the auspices of Camp Director/Acting Counselor Gonzalez, Dance Counselor Kristin Pontz, and Music Counselor Zachary Smith, along with a handful of student interns.

Photos from camp (click to enlarge): All Photos by Missi Mortimer

Kids in charge

“The kids have a say in the production. They are the ones in charge of the show. They help with casting, staging, blocking. This is all an educational tool that we don’t have when we put on a mainstage or Kids4Kids production,” said Gonzalez, who likens himself to a producer with many production assistants. “We are using this show as a tool to teach kids how something becomes an overall performance.”

From basics on stage to the unknowns of backstage, approximately 200 children took a four-week journey to Arendelle, the setting of the story. (Not all campers attended all four weeks of camp. Campers who attend any number of weeks were welcome to be a part of the end performance.)

“It’s a behind the scenes experience, which opens up the entire world of theatre to kids who may have only ever seen a production, or even some seasoned actors who have only focused on their role and have not had the opportunity to consider what a director or stage manager does for a show,” said Gonzalez.

The hands-on experience was a balance between a level of perfection — the end result being the show — and a level of experience — what the campers are learning.

“Our audience is not going to get what they typically see (in a Kids4Kids production),” said Gonzalez, two weeks before the show opening. “They are going to see a showcase, a work in progress, individuals who have committed to their journey. What you are going to see is each camper’s achievements. We want the campers to look back and say, ‘I learned so much.’”


Photos from the dress rehearsal for families and friends (click to enlarge):



The show

“What I found was that when you raise the bar these kids are going to put the work in to accomplish it. Expectations went beyond ‘I’m just here to attend camp.’ It became ‘how does this affect me as a whole person,’” said Gonzalez, who found not everyone wanted to be the star of the show. Working backstage with set design and properties, directing, and stage managing was appealing to many campers.

But a show needs a star, or with a cast of 74 kids, maybe more than one star. In fact, some of the roles had young, middle and older versions of the character, each played by a different actor.

A story of love and acceptance between sisters, “Frozen Jr.” details the journey and relationship between Princess Anna (Sheridan MacKenzie) and her sister Elsa (Dallas Means) that kids may already be familiar with from the movie.

MacKenzie is a fan of the movie “Frozen.” Most girls her age are. The difference between her and most girls is she got to play her favorite character, Anna, literally a dream role for the 11-year old from Lititz.

“She’s so much like me. She has such personality and she always sees the good in people,” said MacKenzie.

In 2014, at the age of six, MacKenzie made her EPAC debut in “Wizard of Oz – Young Performer’s Edition” as a member of the Lullaby League. She started attending theatre camp the next summer.

“When I was little, I saw the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ Kids4Kids show and I said to my mom, ‘I want to do that.’ I was four at the time,” said MacKenzie, whose favorite shows are “Matilda” and “Into the Woods.”

Alongside MacKenzie in “Frozen,” Means doesn’t yet have a dream role, but the 16-year old from Lititz is actively looking for one and wants to gain more experience in the arts. But she also loves the movie and knew every song by heart before coming to camp for the first time.

“It’s really fun. I’m glad I came,” said Means, who took a route to theatre that is sadly not uncommon. Described as a quiet person by her fellow campers, Means said she was often bullied in school. She knew she enjoyed acting having had one other experience on stage.

“I’m a little nervous. This is only my second show and it’s my first lead,” she said.

When faced with danger, Anna and Elsa discover their hidden potential and a powerful bond. Along the way the sisters encounter a cast of beloved characters like Hans (Damian Hemsley), Sven (Jenna Eisenhauer), and Kristoff (Ethan McClung). And, of course, there’s Olaf (Carlos Kohls).

“It’s really exciting and fun (to play Olaf) because I’m not far off from that character,” said Kohls, stopping short at calling himself the camp comedian. “It’s an easy character to play.”

This is Kohls’ second consecutive year as a camper, but he also attended “when I was younger, once.”

“I thought camp was going to be really cool (this year) because we were going to try and put together a whole show,” said Kohls, who hails from Ephrata.

This year has been a turning point for the 11-year-old as he started auditioning for roles; he landed a part in EPAC’s “Mary Poppins Jr.” until he broke his leg. That show went on without Kohls, but he was determined to land another role and he was cast as Olaf. And as fun as it is to play the goofy snowman Kohls has his sights on one particular role from his favorite musical production, “Hairspray.” He wants to play Edna Turnblad, the role twice immortalized by actors John Travolta and Divine.

In the end, true love between sisters imparts power and the finale featuring every cast member shows the kingdom celebrating, “while all vow to fill the world with light and love.”

“Disney has always been good to us here at EPAC,” said Gonzalez. “Who doesn’t want to put on a big gown? Who doesn’t want to be a prince? Disney has an appeal not only to kids but to adults as well.”

It’s true; recently Disney productions have been great for EPAC from Monday’s performance of “Frozen Jr.” to 2017’s critically acclaimed production of “The Lion King Jr.” — both of which filled the theatre to capacity. Not bad for a bunch of kids and a handful of dedicated adults.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.


Photos from the Aug. 5 performance at EPAC (click photos to enlarge):

One Comment

  1. Melissa

    August 7, 2019 at 11:51 am

    I am overcome with joy! As I read this article, it brings tears to my eyes of being so proud of Dallas! The show was phenomenal! The campers did a fantastic job! Proud of then all! Well done EPAC!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *