When rehearsal started for the children's Christmas musical "The Lights of Jingle Bell Hill," director Josh Katzker witnessed slumped shoulders, faint singing voices and eyes staring at the stage floor.

Almost two months later, with days left to go before the show starts, Katzker has seen the junior performers become confident in themselves, he said.

The show, which will be held Dec. 1 and 2 at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in Owasco, is a part of the theater's Junior Stars program, in which children in grades one through six receive training in acting, singing, dancing and the proper way to operate onstage and backstage. The musical focuses on the residents of Jingle Bell Hill, who continually lose in an annual holiday contest.

The Junior Stars program, which began last fall, has two sessions: one in the winter, in which students rehearse a show for a couple months, and one in the spring, which focuses more on building skills and less on the basics of putting on a show.

Katzker said Tuesday night was the first full dress rehearsal of the show complete with costumes. Rehearsals of the show, largely held on Tuesdays and Thursdays, started in early October.

The 31 young actors in the cast have come into their own over the past couple months, Katzker said. He has been impressed seeing the younger students tackle the music in the show, which is intended for students in fifth and sixth grades. The music includes harmonies and other challenges for students in lower grades, like the vocal pitches they have to hit.

Katzker said he believes the students will rise to the occasion.

"It comes down to the fact that everybody was willing to get everything done," Katzker said.

It has been rewarding, Katzker said, to see shy, unsure students blossom with confidence — hitting their marks, remembering their lines and showing their emotions on their faces. The majority of the cast hadn't formally performed before, he said, so although many students were reluctant to "let it all hang out and put it out there" at first, they continued forward with more conviction over time.

Katzker was also impressed with the students' willingness to work hard. On the last Thursday before Thanksgiving week — as rehearsals didn't take place then — Katzker told the children that they had to be able to function on stage without having their scripts in their hands by the next rehearsal. He said students mostly remembered their lines and lyrics by the time of that following rehearsal.

"Lo and behold, everybody had it," Katzker said. "Everybody had done the work that they were supposed to do."

Stephanie Figer, one of the instructors and the show's music director, said that despite the students coming from different school districts, they have nevertheless taken "telling the same story" seriously. Over time, the students have shed signs of insecurity common for children their ages, she said.

"A lot of them forget that they're supposed to be self-conscious," Figer said.

Figer said many local elementary schools don't have plays or dramatic programs available, so she believes Junior Stars has been filling that gap. She believes the program has helped students learn confidence, attention, patience and the importance of sticking to a goal and executing it to the end.

She added that the students have also helped prepare the sets for the show, as they painted some Christmas ornaments and some of the background scenery.

Katzker said he has been thoroughly impressed by his young actors.

"It's amazing how hard they have worked to make it happen," he said.

Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.

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Education Reporter