By Hartley Wright, photo of 2015 production of Mary Poppins


Columbia Entertainment Company may never be the same after a visit from a vigorous and impudent young girl named Sarsaparilla Sue and two kids suffering the effects of watching too much television — all the productions of local writers who have won CEC’s 30th annual Jackie White Memorial National Children’s Play Writing Contest.

Audiences of all ages will be thoroughly entertained and will likely fall in love with the first and second place winners, both musicals.

One show, David Crespy’s “The Zenith Escape,” with music by Meg Phillips Crespy, is a wild and imaginative journey in which two children battle an evil game show host (and encourage the audience to interact and participate along the way).

“‘The Zenith Escape’ finds the perfect balance of being relatable and entertaining to young audiences while also carrying an important set of lessons to be taken away at the end,” says Michele Curry, development director of CEC.

Julie Barnett’s “Sassmouth the Musical,” with music by Audra Sergel, is a humorous story about a girl whose world is impacted by an evil and sneaky adversary causing her to be sassy. The work is an adaptation of Julie’s 2014 children’s book.

“‘Sassmouth the Musical’ is an engaging production from the very first song, which introduces young audiences to Sarsaparilla Sue, an intelligent female lead character with an upbeat and precocious nature,” says Michele.

Audra enjoyed bringing the characters to life in song. “Musically, Julie wrote great characters,” she says. “They were so clearly defined — I could read between the lines and get to the emotional grit they need to sing about.”

Those at home in Columbia’s cultural arts are likely to recognize the talent associated with these dramatic works. Meg is also a playwright, actor, and director who has helped productions at Talking Horse Productions and CEC. Fans of Big Muddy Opera, Musicals at MU, CPAC ballet, and TRYPS productions are familiar with Audra’s work. David is a teacher of playwriting at MU whose influence and contribution to the theater community is immeasurable.

CEC’s national contest, created to inspire playwrights to write excellent scripts for family audiences, helps writers develop into better storytellers. Unlike most playwriting contests, this competition provides feedback and evaluation for all dramatists who enter. The top winners receive a staged production and collaboration with CEC to further develop their work.

As Audra points out: “Musicals typically take from five to seven years to write, workshop, preview, and present to a main stage. It’s expensive and takes a lot of work to self-produce original musical theater.”

David and Meg, each thrilled and honored with this award, are also grateful the contest prize includes the opportunity to see their musical on stage and discover what works and what doesn’t.

Children’s theater enthusiasts can celebrate these winning dramatists in person during CEC’s Jackie White Weekend on May 6 and 7. A staged reading production of “The Zenith Escape” will take place Saturday and “Sassmouth The Musical” debuts on Sunday. The curtain rises for each production at 2:00 p.m. and admission is free.

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