Last December, Setting the Stage celebrated its 20th anniversary of providing opportunities for children to experience all aspects of musical theater, including acting, singing and dancing.
The program still operates in the lower level of the First United Methodist Church of Arlington Heights, putting together ensemble versions of popular musicals and working with youngsters from auditions to a final performance.
Some 20 years later, some of its earliest graduates are now working in the field and they seem to validate the group's mission that the joy of being on stage lasts a lifetime.
Consider Kaitlyn Fine, the assistant company manager for "Hamilton" in Chicago, and Kim Green, who is working at the Mercury Theater in the show, "Mary Poppins," and Jen Mitchell, who just opened in the latest sketch at Second City.
Setting the Stage's latest success stories came last month, when two graduates were nominated for non-equity Jeff Awards in Chicago.
Max DeTogne was nominated for best actor in a musical for his role as Rob in "High Fidelity" at the Refuge Theatre Project, while Joe Giovannetti was nominated for best supporting actor in a musical, for his portrayal of Hermann in "The Most Happy Fella" at the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre. The show leads all musical productions with 11 nominations, including best musical.
"It was never our intention to create stars," said Alex DeTogne, of Arlington Heights, who co-founded the workshop with Leslie Holliday, of Cary. "Our mission is to prepare them. The rehearsal process is, and always will be, the focus of our program."
Yet, Alex DeTogne concedes she and Holliday, are bursting with pride to see so many former students continuing to work in musical theater.
DeTogne's son, Max, started with the workshop when he was 4 and his role was pulling the curtain. He literally grew up on stage, performing with the rest of the ensemble in memorable Broadway Junior musicals.
He continued performing at Hersey High School and went on to major in theater and speech at North Central College in Naperville. He won his first Jeff nomination two years ago, for his role as Jesus in the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre.
At the anniversary celebration in December, Max DeTogne joined with 25 other alumni in performing a review of songs from the shows they had performed in as children.
"It was very interesting to see how many things people remembered from shows they had performed years ago in a church basement," he said. "Of course, I am constantly grateful for having learned from them.
"They not only introduced me to something that has become a passion of mine," he added, "but created a safe space for awkward kids like me to make something beautiful."
Giovannetti's show closed Sunday and he said he enjoyed every minute. It was his first professional show after taking a three-year hiatus from performing.
He performed in eight musicals while studying music at Indiana University, and last year he directed the choral program at St. Viator High School, where he attended. He continues to give private voice lessons at Hersey High School, while pursuing a master's degree at Northwestern.
Yet, Giovannetti said he still remembers his first show with Setting the Stage. He played Benjamin in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."
"My parents enrolled me in the program, but I cried the day leading up to the auditions, and was very hesitant to go," Giovannetti remembers. "Once I got there, I was hooked. I have not stopped being involved in musical theater since that day."