Emerald Ridge sophomore Joshua France finds a place on stage

Tacoma News TribuneMarch 6, 2014 

When it comes to high school musicals, there are student actors who crave the spotlight.

And then, there are kids like 16-year-old Emerald Ridge High School sophomore Joshua France, who’s happy to be one of the crowd.

“I’m more indifferent,” says Joshua, who got involved in his school’s production of “Shrek: The Musical” at the urging of his mom. He stars as Humpty Dumpty in the story that features a collection of familiar fairy tale characters.

Joshua, who maneuvers his wheelchair through the musical’s dance numbers with aplomb, has already been featured on TV and on the Puyallup School District web site. But he remains humble. He says no one’s asked him for his autograph -- yet.

Being part of “Shrek,” which closes this weekend with Friday and Saturday evening performances that are nearly sold out, has helped him develop a love for musical theater that he didn’t know he had.

He’s always loved to sing, and he’s part of his school’s men’s chorus, but it wasn’t until he tried out for “Shrek” in December that he realized singing in the spotlight could be fun.

“When I came into the auditions, that’s what made me want to do it even more,” Joshua said. A few days after the audition, he learned he had the part.

“When they released the cast list, I was like, ‘Sweet,’ ” he said.

Diagnosed with the neuromuscular disorder Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) at age 4, Joshua says it’s  just something that has always been part of his life. His younger brother Sam, age 11, is also affected by the same inherited condition. 

Joshua moved into a wheelchair around age 9, as DMD’s progressive nature began to make walking difficult. Joshua’s dad Gary built part of his unique “Shrek” costume -- including Humpty Dumpty’s famous wall, which is attached to his motorized wheelchair and speeds across the stage with the actor.

“Shrek” director and Emerald Ridge theater teacher Chris Tavern said he knew Joshua had vocal talent, because he’d heard him sing during school choral performances. But he said Joshua is more than a voice. He’s the whole musical theater package.

“He uses the tools he has well,” Tavern said. “Not just singing, but vocal expression and the way he connects with the audience. In addition to being crazy talented, he makes the show better with his personality.”

Ask other students involved in the production to describe Joshua, and you hear words like “sweet,” “awesome” and “funny.” When he’s backstage, he and the crew often lip-synch show songs together.

“Josh, he’s like super into what he does,” said crew member Trina Hahn. “He’s like, super enthusiastic and positive.”

Joshua’s booming singing voice -- a tenor, morphing into a baritone, his mom Christine says -- frequently echoes through the France home.

A lover of the arts, Christine is director of the Pacific Ballroom Dance Company in Auburn.

“He’s always had a clear tone to his voice,” she said. “It’s beautiful. I kept encouraging him to sing in different places, but he would say ‘No’. He was too embarrassed.”

When she heard about the “Shrek” auditions, she pushed her son to go for it. She worried that so many of his hobbies -- movies, reading -- were solitary ventures. But she knew his sense of music, and drama, would play well on stage.

“His voice is a gift that’s been given to him,” she said. “He has a responsibility to share it.”

It’s a gift that could one day be  jeopardized by DMD, which can affect the involuntary muscles that control the diaphragm. But so far, Joshua is doing well, his mom said. His singing may even help keep his breathing muscles in better shape, she added.

Coping with DMD in the family isn’t easy, and Christine says her family’s Mormon faith helps. The average life expectancy for patients with DMD is around age 25.

“We take every day for what it is,” she said. “We try not to look too far into the future.”

Does dealing with the condition ever get Joshua down?

“Not really,” he says. “There’s no point in being down.”

Then he’s off, wheeling across the stage, and into the spotlight.



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