Beauty and the Beast Jr. (copy)

Eliah Remedios Contreras as Belle in the Mission Waco Jubilee Theatre production of "Beauty and the Beast Jr."

Staff photo — Jerry Larson

— Saturday's matinee of "Beauty and the Beast Jr." at the Jubilee Theatre  had a first for me: a full house that missed a sellout by only a few seats.

Friday's performance also came close and Sunday's closer did the trick with all seats sold, a nice feather in the cap for director Afton Foreman and her kids in the Mission Waco Jubilee Theatre production.

I've seen plays in that theater for several years and while some performances were in front of healthy audiences, more than a few had turnouts far smaller than the performers and plays onstage deserved. Those slow nights were a shame, for the Jubilee was presenting plays no one else in Waco had — the only two plays by the great black playwright August Wilson that I've seen live were Jubilee Theatre productions — and showing off Waco talent at a place other than a church.

Maybe it took the combination of Disney and a youth production to pack the seats, but so be it: A sell-out's a sell-out.

As I was waiting for the play to begin, I thought of how much had changed, bit by bit, since I first saw the Jubilee a decade or so earlier. It was gutted then, a shell of the rundown adult movie theater that it was in its last lifetime.

Mission Waco and its director Jimmy Dorrell had a vision of making it a community nexus for the arts, a part of a larger neighborhood revitalization.

The fold-out theater seat I was in once belonged in my church before a sanctuary renovation; Mission Waco took those former sanctuary seats — whose springs still occasionally "boing," I noticed — and blessed them for another use.

The stage, the lighting, the microphones, the wireless mikes — I remember they all came piecemeal over the years as funding and opportunity allowed.

I thought, too, how the neighborhood had changed. What was once a sketchy neighborhood corner when I moved to Waco back in the 1980s now had two restaurants, offices and a new grocery store across the street, not to mention more than a few restored and rehabbed homes on North 15th St.

It struck me that for all the attention that Chip and Joanna Gaines have brought to Waco with their "Fixer Upper" television series, and justifiably so, that Waco has had others involved in their own versions of Fixer Upper for years.

In a society that seems to value only the new and shiny, people and organizations like Mission Waco have spent their time and money turning the discarded and ignored into something of worth.

There's also a Fixer Upper work that Waco arts and schools have done with young people and communities. The Jubilee's "Beauty and the Beast Jr." was the first Mission Waco children's production with an open audition, Foreman told me, and the surprising response gave her one of her largest companies.

Some, like the sweetly singing Eliah Contreras, who played Belle, had never acted in a play before. For many in the company, the well-attended weekend run was the first time they had acted, sung or danced before an audience that wasn't at their church or their school. And for some in the audience, the Jubilee was their first theatrical experience.

The Fixer Upper transformation that arts can work in lives isn't reclaiming something neglected or outdated like a house or a building, but perhaps more constructing a vision of possibility — one where a child sees the result of hard work and discipline, where a shy kid in a classroom can make an audience cheer, where someone who always wanted to sing and dance gets a chance to do just that.

In that "Beauty and the Beast Jr." audience Saturday I saw a scattering of Waco stage directors, choir directors and teachers who have made that sort of Fixer Upper work their life.

As the lights came up in the early minutes of the play to illluminate simply-painted panels that represented Belle's village, I heard a boy's hushed voice in the darkness near me say, "This is the magic."

Yes. Yes, it is.

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor