Most people first heard Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Ugly Duckling" as children and learned its message about not judging others by outward appearances.
When Bernie Appugliese decided to direct "Honk!" a musical version of the tale, he decided to carry its philosophy over to the casting, filling out the show with several performers dealing with mental and physical challenges.
"We get calls all the time from people with some physical challenges, and there's never anything for them," Appugliese said. "It seems non-traditional casting stopped at one point, and we didn't take it any farther."
Tribune Chronicle/Andy Gray
Anja Calior, seated, is making her stage debut in the musical “Honk!” which opens Friday at Youngstown Playhouse. Pushing the wheelchair is Caitlin Kalasky.
Among those who came to auditions was Anja Calior, who grew up in Vienna and now lives in Warren.
"I read it in the newspaper, and I'm so happy I did," Calior said. "I wanted to try something new and acting seemed like the perfect thing. I like music and I like people, too."
Calior, who is in a wheelchair following a traumatic brain injury, plays one of the geese in the musical by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. She sings, she has dialogue, and she does some "wheelchair dancing" in the production.
When You Go
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 15
WHERE: Youngstown Playhouse, 600 Playhouse Lane, Youngstown
HOW MUCH: $15 adults and $12 students and senior citizens. For tickets or more information, call 330-788-8739 or go to www.theyoungstownplayhouse.com
ALSO: In conjunction with "Honk!" an art show featuring the work of students from McGuffey Elementary, Stambaugh Charter Academy and East and Chaney high schools will be on display in the lobby of the Playhouse.
Calior has been going over her lines again and again, relying on repetition to help her learn her part. And Appugliese gave her a copy of the soundtrack on CD to help her learn the songs. While she said she's struggling with her lines, she has no trouble reminding local stage veteran Terry Shears, who plays the leader of the geese, to say "troops" and not "men" to describe the other feathered flyers.
"She keeps me honest," Shears said.
So far the experience has been everything she imagined it would be, and Calior said she is looking forward to opening night.
"It will be scary, but very, very, very fun," she said. "My mom will be out there cheering me on, and some of my friends will be there too. It will just be a fun, fun experience. I can't wait."
At a rehearsal last week, Calior's smile beamed brighter than any of the overhead lights, and Appugliese said he's had no second thoughts about his casting decisions.
"It's working out beautifully for me," he said. "The nice thing has been to watch in the rehearsal process, the bonds that have formed and to see the theme of the show, which is different is beautiful, happen in front of your eyes. It's just so nice."
The rest of the cast features Jailon Perry, Connie Cassidy, Snezana Jelic, Christopher Hager, Lori George, Anthony "Coot" Madison, Jessie Thomas, Johnna Blystone, Jessica Stellers, Zoe Anderson, Glenda Young, Caitlin Kalasky, Shannon Sellards, Brian K. Dew, Russel "Radar" Pavlov, Miko Jekic, Holly Ceci, Renee Johntony, Taylor Dunnavant, Stacy Anderson, Ashley Balas, Ella George, Terra Guerrero, Miranda DeLapa, Cecilia George, Johnny George, Luke Hetzel, Natalie Kovacs and Angelina Sabatino.
Appugliese is the one who brought "Honk!" to the Playhouse's attention.
"I've always been a big fan of the show, and I got to speak to the gentlemen that wrote the show in Chicago at a seminar," he said. "I love all their work. I love how they translate fairy tales and old stories and remind us that they are still extremely relevant."
While it's not a traditional Christmas show, Appugliese said he thinks it's a perfect show for a time of year when people are looking for entertainment that will appeal to the whole family.
"They write big, old-fashioned Broadway musical comedy scores," he said. "They don't talk down to children, and they don't write lyrics that make adults cringe."