When 120 students showed up to Alpine Theatre Project’s audition for its first-ever performance of Disney’s Frozen JR, theater instructor Luke Walrath wasn’t sure what to do with them all.
“We’re going to have a lot of disappointed kids,” he said was his first reaction.
But Walrath’s wife, Alpine Theatre Project artistic director Betsi Morrison, had a different reaction.
“We’re taking all of them,” she said to her husband and colleague.
Even more students have joined the production after that first audition to bring the total to more than 180 students from 22 elementary schools to perform in Frozen JR, making it Alpine Theatre Project’s largest kids production in its 11-year history.
On Saturday, Oct. 19 and Sunday, Oct. 20, students will perform the popular Disney Broadway production at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center.
Since Walrath and Morrison started Alpine Theatre Project in 2008, they have maintained a vision to include all students interested in their program, no matter their talent level or economic status.
Coming from competitive Broadway backgrounds, Walrath and Morrison shifted into education when they moved to Whitefish and didn’t want their program to be backbreaking.
“We’re here to get kids interested,” Walrath said.
So when 180 students wanted to participate, they made room for all of them by splitting the kids into two separate Frozen JR casts with four performances. Each show will have 90 kids.
As a “junior” version, the show created more groups of characters so that more kids can participate.
Walrath says he’s sure the turnout was so high for this performance because of Frozen’s popularity.
Disney’s Frozen JR is based on the 2018 Broadway production and popular 2013 film, which tell a story of two sisters in a winter kingdom. The film’s sequel, Frozen 2, will premiere in movie theaters in November.
While Walrath isn’t certain why it’s caused such a craze among kids, he speculates it’s because of the sister dynamic between Elsa and Anna, which is new for Disney. Along with the lack of a definable romantic component, the film signifies a switch from traditional fairytale stories where the prince saves the princess.
“There was something refreshing about the prince turning into a villain,” Walrath said.
Frozen is the second highest-grossing animated film all-time with $1.27 billion, just barely trailing behind the 2019 remake of The Lion King with $1.33 billion. Walrath said the Frozen JR audition attracted around 50 boys who wanted to perform.
“We were surprised at all the boys,” he said. “We’ll usually get 20 boys if we’re lucky.”
Walrath says regardless of ability, participation helps kids with social anxiety and allows them to interact with other children in a safe and creative environment.
“A lot of these kids want to do it just because it’s fun,” Walrath said. “It’s valuable to their confidence.”
With only three people running the program, Walrath says orchestrating a production of this scale would be impossible without parent volunteers.
“We rely heavily on volunteers,” Walrath said. “They are the reason it’s succeeded.”
Volunteers organize the kids, give them nametags and act as stage managers, which allow Walrath, Morrison and a third staff member, Rebecca Spear, to instruct.
Since the Alpine Theater Project doesn’t turn away any student, Walrath says cost sometimes poses challenges. With costumes and production expenses, the performance becomes expensive with 180 kids.
In addition to sponsors and donors, the Alpine Theatre Projects asks for tuition, but allows lower-income families to pay only what they can, turning no one away.
“We have a responsibility to make (theater) accessible,” Walrath said. “Theater is for everyone.”
Frozen JR will show at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center on Oct. 19 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Oct. 20 at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.
For more information, visit www.atpwhitefish.org.