Teens with special needs present Beauty and the Beast Jr.

By Brian Singer

DeKalb High School gave children with special needs the chance to perform Beauty and the Beast Jr. on stage Thursday.

The play was held through the Penguin Project, an organization that gives children with physical or social handicaps the opportunity to participate in theater.

Haley Tyrrell, who is blind, played the lead role of Belle, has been with the Penguin Project since its beginning three years ago. She said she loves to sing, play piano and wants to follow in her choir director’s footsteps and become a choir teacher.

“I’m naturally good at singing. I’ve always gotten an A+ in choir,” Tyrrell said. “It also helps having the most awesome musical director.”

Music director Julie Breidenbach has also been with the Penguin Project since the beginning and said working with actors with special needs brings a unique challenges to directing a show.

“It’s very different,” Breidenbach said. “Everyone is coming with all kinds of skill sets. The key is putting them in the right spot where they can shine based on abilities and possibilities.”

Opposite of Belle was the Beast, played by 17-year-old Jacob Morton, who made his acting debut with this role.

“I was talking to my social workers and they told me to go and try out the Penguin Project,” Morton said.

After being introduced to the organization by a friend, Morton auditioned for Beauty and the Beast Jr. and landed the leading role.

Before getting on stage, Morton said he could be quiet and withdrawn since he had a mild case of Asperger syndrome. Once rehearsals began, Morton saw being on stage and working with the other actors was helping him open up.

“It has raised my self-esteem,” Morton said. “Before Penguin Project it was low, but now I’ve become a little more outgoing and assertive.”

As show time came near, Morton said he felt a special connection with his character.

“I was born to play the Beast,” Morton said, “I feel like I’ve grown right along with the Beast into a better person.”