The words came from behind the stage and echoed through the theatre.
The stage itself was dark and empty for the moment, with the exception of one bright spot -- one lone large penguin. Not a live penguin, but a stuffed animal type of penguin. At the time, I didn't understand why the penguin was there. I'd eventually find out.
The question had been something along the lines of "are you guys ready to put on a show?"
The collective reply from backstage was a challenge -- a unified, smiling challenge -- to anyone who would dare ask that question.
"Try and stop us!"
No one did. Not even the penguin.
It was my 13-year-old nephew's theatre debut last weekend, a junior-version production of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" at the Brunner Theatre Center at Augustana College in the Quad Cities. It was presented by the college theatre, the local arts center, and something called the "Penguin Project."
As I found out, the Penguin Project is a national non-profit organization with the vision of creating unrestricted access for children with special needs to the performing arts. This is accomplished with the assistance of multiple sites across the country that produce a modified version of a well-known Broadway musical. Artists with special needs fill the acting roles.
At first glance, it's just another stage musical -- a tale as old as time (forgive me, I had to work that line into the column somewhere) -- but on close examination, it's something unique and special, and I'm thrilled I was able to witness it.
The cast was made up of kids and young adults, the youngest were still in the single digits in age, while the oldest were in their early 20s. All have special needs. Some of them have Downs Syndrome, some are on the autism spectrum. Some have cerebral palsy. Intellectually disabled, congenital heart disease, cognitive and developmental delay. Hearing impaired, visually impaired. One kid was in a wheelchair.
Call them ailments or handicaps or disabilities or whatever you want to call them, but just know that whatever disadvantages the cold hard world has heaped upon you or me, there's somebody out there fighting out of a bigger heap. And that person is fighting to pursue the same happiness that you and I are.
One of the actors has visual and physical challenges due to a post-operative stroke. It's something of a miracle that she's even able to talk, and yet, her solo version of the play's famous title song, "Beauty and the Beast," was no doubt the most soulful and touching rendition I have ever heard.
One of the actors is non-verbal. He can't talk. So he was equipped with a device upon which he pushed a button when it was time for him to deliver his line, and his pre-recorded line was delivered. The acting came in the form of gestures, facial expressions and body language.
Each of the actors gets a peer mentor, someone their age without disabilities who essentially keeps them on task, nudges them when it's time for their entrance or exit, and prompts them if they forget a line -- but there were no noticeable forgotten lines Saturday night.
There were choreographed dance routines that defied belief, and left little doubt as to how much work these young people and their directors had put in over a period of several months.
The Penguin Project's motto is, "Penguins might not be able to fly, but that does not prevent their spirits from soaring."
That's a good motto, but it seemed to me that some penguins were actually flying Saturday night.
My nephew played the part of Monsieur D'Arque, the twisted and slightly creepy head of the insane asylum who is commissioned by the bad guys to lock up the heroine's father. I was proud of his performance. His lines were successfully delivered in a deep and authoritative manner, and his costume -- which included a black mask, black hat and black cape -- was about the coolest costume on stage, with the possible exception of the Beast.
The actors who portrayed the principal characters -- Belle, The Beast and Gaston -- were especially delightful to watch, and I couldn't help but think what a shame it would have been if these young people had never gotten this opportunity. Great things can come from unexpected places. How many great things has the world missed out on simply because individuals such as these were not afforded an outlet like this?
There were many great things happening on that Quad Cities stage on Saturday, but perhaps the best part of the night was the end, the finale, after the curtain call, after all of the actors had taken their bows.
The curtain call itself was a sight to behold -- as the young actors took their bows and received a standing ovation, they beamed with pride. They were appreciated, their hard work and talent was validated.
I could feel how they felt. I've experienced a few curtain calls of my own. Everyone should get the opportunity to take a bow at least once in his or her life, to listen to others cheer and applaud something they've done.
Everyone should know what it's like to feel as though for this moment -- however brief this moment is -- for this moment, you are the reason everyone is happy.
At this moment, you are a warm, bright thing in a cold, dark world -- and everyone loves you.
And after that moment, came the celebration. The song "Don't Stop Believin'" was cranked through the theatre speakers, and the entire cast sang and danced and laughed and clapped and swayed to the beat and played air guitar. The penguin was up there with them.
They invited the audience to join them, and many of us did.
Because when someone invites you to share that kind of joy with them, there's really only one thing to say.
Try and stop me.