A Fort Smith-based theater group will be the first area organization to stage Disney's "The Lion King Jr.," according to one lifelong theater fan.

The Children's Theatre Co., which is part of the Community School of the Arts, will present the colorful, song-filled production at 7 p.m. Nov. 16 and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Nov. 17 at the King Opera House, 427 Main St. in Van Buren, said Shannon Stoddard, director for the play.

"What's most thrilling about this is, this is a brand-new show, and no one in this area has done it yet," she said. "And it's really cool to be working on this show with the kids, seeing them work on these characters."

The production will feature the onstage talents of 39 area children who are in grades 3-6. All participating children will be displaying their versatility once the stage curtain rises, Stoddard said.

"All of the kids are in this production all of the time," she said. "The kids are playing different roles. In the opening scene, they are different animals from the jungle, and there's another scene where they are grass. Then there's the stars in the night sky. It's been a really fun acting challenge for all of these kids."

Since the first rehearsal back in August, Stoddard has made it a daily priority to ensure the children feel they are an "important" part of a team.

"It's really important to me that all of the students feel very involved in each production," she said. "I want them to all feel important and have something to do, so we are featuring them in different ways throughout the show."

Many of the children already are displaying an artistic drive that could carry them throughout the rest of the school years, Stoddard said.

"I was amazed at watching the auditions," she said. "So far, there's no stagefright."

Stoddard, musical director Sheila Mann and costumer Chandra Whatley are among those who are just outside of the spotlight and making "The Lion King Jr." possible, said Dr. Rosilee Russell, founder and executive director for the Community School of the Arts.

"I am thrilled that Shannon has joined our faculty as theater director; she is fabulous," Russell said. "And Sheila Mann is fabulous, and Chandra is a professional fashion artist and costumer, and I am really looking forward to seeing the costumes on the stage for this event."

Russell called the production an ideal opportunity to showcase the cast members' onstage skills and commitment to the material.

"The talent level really is extraordinary for 'The Lion King Jr.,'" she said. "That is one of the things I am really excited about. That shows that the Children's Theatre Co. program is growing, and to my knowledge, we are first to be performing 'The Lion King Jr.' in our area. We are really excited about that." 

Another factor working in favor of the production is the characters themselves, Russell said.

"One of the things I love about this show is, it's all about animals," she said. "Children love to participate in shows that include animals, and if they are playing an animal, then it's that much better.

"And it's a very ensemble-driven show," Russell added. "There are leads in the show, yes, but it's very ensemble-driven. The children get lots of opportunities to shine."

Tickets for "The Lion King Jr." are $12 for adults, $10 for children and $8 for groups of 10 or more. Tickets can be purchased at CSAFortSmith.org.

"So far, people in the community have been quite impressed," Russell said. "I always hear comments on how impressive these kids are on the stage, and how impressive their acting skills are with each performance. That tells me we are doing something right, because it's all been positive. It's all good."

Stoddard agreed.

"For me, 'The Lion King' was the first show I saw on Broadway — I was in late elementary school or early junior high — and I was just amazed," she said. "Just sitting there in the audience, watching all of those characters come to life, going in and out of the audience, it was incredible.

"I know 'The Lion King Jr.' will be fun," Stoddard added. "Our kids are doing a really awesome job."