There's music. And then there's boisterous music. The song is "Dog Days Are Over," originally performed by Florence and the Machine, and in this version, the stage at Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater has become a rousing, clanging, percussive wallop of sound. Feet stomp. Tambourines jangle. Plastic cups crash against the floor as the lyrics pound out:
The dog days are over
The dog days are done
The horses are coming
So you better ... Abruptly, all is quiet except for a solitary voice.
"RUN," belts Elena Aguirre, the tuneful note loud and urgent, thrown at the audience like a brick. It's her moment, and she owns it.
As I'm sitting there Wednesday night watching the Junior Company Foundation gala, a one-time performance featuring current and alumni company members titled "Toward the Future, From the Past," I'm struck by a memory of Aguirre nearly four years ago.
At 13, she was a more timid presence in her first months on stage than now, when she's about to turn 17. Her dancing back then? A little shaky. ("I didn't have much experience," she says now, "and I really feel I was tripping over my feet.") Her acting? Just a few school plays behind her. (With a laugh: "I think I was a sheep when I was 2.")
But her smile, her enthusiasm, her obvious love for performing — all those things that draw me in as an audience member — they haven't changed. They've just gotten better. Aguirre, now a senior at University High School, has grown up before our very eyes. What a privilege that has been to witness.
I always make it a point to attend the Junior Company pre-shows at every Good Company Players performance at Roger Rocka's. No slipping in right before curtain of the "big people's show" for me. It's a treat to watch and listen to these hard-working kids and to follow their progress throughout the years.
It's only natural to watch a Junior Company pre-show and think of the professional performers who have come from its ranks — names such as Audra McDonald, Christopher Gorham and Heidi Blickenstaff. Who among this current crop of performers, I wonder, could go on to make it big?
But the Junior Company also makes a profound impact on the lives of talented children who decide not to go the professional route. The discipline and confidence gained from the demanding program can be used as building blocks for many endeavors in later life, not just starring on Broadway.
The gala on Wednesday was a fundraiser for the Junior Company Foundation, a nonprofit group.
In years past, the foundation focused on providing "extras" for company members — such things as performance-based scholarships. Recently, however, the foundation has expanded its mission.
Operating expenses for the Juniors, including costumes, music rights, paid staff and stipends for the performers, have always been absorbed by Good Company Players. The foundation hopes to eventually cover those costs (while still providing scholarships), giving GCP a little more financial breathing room in these tough economic times for the arts.
The goal this year is $25,000. Eventually, the foundation hopes to raise up to $80,000 a year.
To that end, board members reinstated the annual fundraiser, which hadn't been held for many years.
Watching the show on Wednesday was a chance to witness an often magical mix of younger and older performers sharing the same stage.
For example: Heather Awbrey Glosier, 29, teamed up with Daniel Lajune, 17, in the comedy song "Past Your Prime" from "Lil' Abner." Glosier milked the creaky-bones message of the song to great effect, riffing off Lajune's strapping young character.
The song was funny, sure, but it also was a little bittersweet. People do get older. Bodies, um, don't bend like they used to. And youthful memories flood back when you retake a stage on which you spent your formative years. You could sense that emotion.
There were straight-out moving moments, such as when Dan Aldape performed with his wife, Kellerie Aldape. They had eight years of Junior Company experience between them, but with him being a little older, their time in the company didn't overlap. This was the first time they shared the Roger Rocka's stage together.
And there were some out-of-towners to acknowledge, such as Alexis Colett, who's attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston. She sent a video greeting that included one of her commercial voice-over projects for the European toy company Famosa and its new line of Nenuco's children's toys in the U.S. (She recorded all the voices in the commercial — quite impressive.)
Digitally represented, too, was actor/singer Michael Willett, who had planned to be one of the gala's returning "stars" until he got a last-minute screen test for an MTV series. He shared two of his new songs.
The most impressive part of the evening, however, was the fact that it was all planned by current Junior Company members (with help from some adults). They picked the theme, songs and lineup. They choreographed and vocal coached.
And who was the artistic director, in charge of it all?
She isn't sure she wants to go into show business for a career — "I come from a family of medicine," she says — but she knows that performing will always be part of her life.
To see her up there on stage, so assured and with such presence, is testament to the important work this longtime Fresno institution achieves.
For the first act finale, the cast gathered to sing "The Junior Company Song" — a variation on the jingle that used to be part of the ensemble's performances years ago on KSEE Channel 24.
Aguirre wrote the music and lyrics with help from her friends, including Mylan Biltz. The words:
Inside the Junior Company we learn how theater ought to be,
I'm part of Junior Company.
You can only stay in the Junior Company through age 16. Aguirre will perform in the pre-show through the run of "Shrek," which closes Nov. 10. And then it's over for her.
But just ask Junior Company alumni. Once you're in it, you're a member for life, no matter your age.
The song continues:
Too bad you're stuck,
You can't escape
You'll never be alone
This is your family,
This is your home.
How will Aguirre feel after she "ages" out?
"It's been such a huge part of my life," she says. "It's going to be like missing an arm."
For a link to contribute to the Junior Company Foundation, go to http://bit.ly/1a9DD1Y
The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.