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After learning his mother has developed Type 2 diabetes, 11-year-old Austin decides to make some changes in his life, like actually playing basketball instead of the Xbox kind.

His friend Dylan thinks he's nuts. Play basketball with that round thing? he asks his friend.

"It's a ball," Austin replies with all the eye-rolling sarcasm of a typical preteen.

This is one of many humorous moments of "Austin the Unstoppable," the newest commission from George Street Playhouse that will turn up in middle schools throughout the state beginning next month.

The musical comedy, which received its premiere Wednesday in New Brunswick, uses middle school humor (think burping jokes) and sincere family situations to explore childhood obesity and the health problems associated with it.

From Daniel Israel and Barry Wyner - creator of "Calvin Berger," George Street's 2010 hit that set "Cyrano de Bergerac" in a suburban high school - "Austin the Unstoppable" shows how changing diets and increasing physical activity can make a difference.

"It's a story of health and wellness, but also of the support system needed for success ... a journey of fulfilling one's dreams," said Jim Jack, the theater's director of education and outreach.

The George Street touring company performed the 50-minute work at yesterday's Spotlight Conference on Childhood Obesity and Wellness, a daylong event for teachers, administrators and parents. Also in attendance were 50 fourth graders from nearby Roosevelt Elementary School, who were invited by the theater to see how the new work would be received by student audiences.

"I've always looked at theater for young people the same as theater for older people," George Street artistic director David Saint told the morning audience of some 175. "We must give the same respect and high quality to both."

The company has succeeded. "Austin" is a sweetly funny but not preachy look at how healthy choices can be made by even the youngest family members. Employing catchy tunes and the right dose of middle school humor, the team shows how Austin and his family and friends adopt a new, more active life style.

Grave consequences

Before the performance, New Jersey Commissioner of Health Mary O'Dowd explained why the topic is so important. Fifteen percent of New Jersey's children are obese, she said. One in three New Jerseyans aged 10 to 17 are overweight.

"There are grave consequences," O'Dowd said. " These children are more likely to suffer from diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular disease and joint disease."

Following the performance, O'Dowd commended the creators for production: "You made it about the many little choices," she said.

"Austin's" focus on an important issue facing today's students is a long-standing George Street tradition, Jack said. The other shows currently on the roster deal with conflict resolution, cyber-bullying and tolerance.

"Austin" represents growth for the company for several reasons.

First, it marks the first musical to be performed by George Street's touring company, which this year will perform four productions for more than 40,000 students across the state.

The show is the first to tap into the newly created Victoria Mastrobuono New Work Development Program, which contributed the $10,000 commissioning fee. It is also supported by grants from the Horizon Foundation and Bristol-Myers Squibb

The show's tricky topic represents a milestone, according to Jack.

"We were aware of the potential alienation we could cause," he said. "There is potential for someone to be humiliated. We thought it was a good idea, but it was a matter of how to do it."

Jack approached Wyner, who had experience as a middle school choir director, because he thought his artistic sensibility matched the topic. Wyner brought in composer Daniel Israel.

Wyner admitted the topic was a challenge.

"A musical about nutrition and wellness doesn't sound like fun," Wyner said. So the creators focused on friendship and family and the power of dreams.

"You can't reach your dreams if you are not able, if you don't feel well," he said. "Without being healthy, you can't do anything else."

"Austin the Unstoppable" is scheduled to be performed about 20 times from February through May, but Jack expects those bookings to more than triple next year. Schools interested in booking "Austin" or the other shows should contact the theater's administrative offices.


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