The Penguin Project performs “Hairspray”

The cast of “Hairspray Jr.” performs a musical number from the iconic musical Thursday evening at Sycamore High School.

Jamie O'Toole, Columnist

DeKALB — “Hairspray Jr.” concluded Thursday evening’s performance with the encore song “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey at Sycamore High School. The entire cast — actors and their mentors, even past Penguins — formed three lines and grooved to the inspiring lyrics. 

Mentors guided the actors, showing them the moves and using sign language to communicate the words to those who needed it.

The Penguin Project organizes these musicals so young artists with developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, visual impairment, hearing impairment and other neurological disorders can take the stage, according to the DeKalb County website. These young actors are each joined by a peer mentor.

Cindy Holda, mother of Sarah Holda who played Penny Pingleton in the musical, said her daughter has learning differences as well as anxiety. 

“When we started with Penguin seven years ago, she had no ability to read,” Cindy Holda said. “The first year we were in Penguin, three weeks into it, I caught her upstairs in her bedroom with her headphones on, and she was reading the music and singing along. Penguin gives them the ability to shine, but also the ability to learn social skills and how to overcome difficulties.” 

Since May, the kids have worked  hard to nail their parts, memorize their lines and put on this show for their parents and community members to enjoy. 

This year marked the 10 year anniversary of the project. Shaelyn West, who played Velma Von Tussel, said, “I’ve been doing the show for 10 years, so I’m an OG.” 

The project has made an impact in her life, West said. “I have all these friends now. They’re all different ages, but we still connect because of the show. It’s okay to be you,” West said. “It’s okay to be different. A disability is not something you should be ashamed of, but something you should embrace.”

West and her counterparts put on four shows Thursday through Sunday, and worked together to tell the story of “Hairspray Jr.”

The energy of the scenes in Act 1 and Act 2 were completely diverse as characters developed and conflict arose. 

In the middle of Act 2 during the song “Without Love,” Tracy, played by Grace Turk, stood behind bars after getting arrested, and Link, played by Jonah Malecki, approached her in her cell. Together, the two flaunted their natural chemistry and harmonized while Link broke Tracy out of jail and confessed his love to her. 

The actors did an exceptional job at allowing the audience to grow with their love. As the musical went on, the audience could sense this connection. 

As their love progressed their dynamic grew stronger and touched the audience’s hearts.

Following this song, Motormouth, played by Hayley Tyrell, finished her solo, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” and the audience erupted. She sent the crowd into an uproar with her passionate singing. 

Since the young actor was blind, she had a mentor throughout the play, but the spotlight shone on her, and her mentor remained in the shadows. 

Not only did Tyrell do an amazing job mastering the vocals for the song, but the director and everyone involved succeeded in their effort to assist but not take away any attention from the well-deserving actors.

The actors and mentors wore matching clothes, and a couple of them even resembled each other through height, hairstyles and size. 

By doing this, the cast looked cohesive, and the mentors were not obviously there. 

The Penguin Project makes it their mission to not only put on a great show, but to also keep their plays inclusive, and they did exactly that.