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'Johnny:' It's Sprite Time

John Tartaglia is two weeks into a five-month run as Lumiere in Disney's Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. Earlier, he was nominated for a Tony Award as an actor and puppeteer in the hit Broadway musical Avenue Q.

But on the Strip in Vegas, when people chase him down for an autograph, he says it's for his role as “Johnny,” the musician who interacts with Muppet-like “Sprites” in five-minute between-program segments shown during Disney Channel's Playhouse Disney preschool block.

It was Disney Channel Worldwide president Rich Ross who first chased Tartaglia, though, sending him a note backstage after a performance of Avenue Q. That led to the creation of Johnny and the Sprites, which debuted as five interstitial segments in 2005 and now will be a full half-hour show. Disney has ordered 13 episodes.

Tartaglia, the other actors and puppeteers and the crew finished shooting the first season on Nov. 17 at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, N.Y. The first episode debuts Jan. 13 at 10 a.m.

Johnny represents a return to live-action programming for Playhouse Disney, whose lineup is populated with animated preschool series such as Little Einsteins, JoJo's Circus, Higglytown Heroes and, most recently, Handy Manny.

But Disney Channel also has had great success with live-action shows (High School Musical, Cheetah Girls) that feature music.

Johnny has at least one original song per 11-minute segment, written by veteran Broadway composers. They're sung by Tartaglia, who plays a human character on the show but also is the puppeteer for an old Sprite called Sage, and by Johnny's four Sprite comrades' puppeteers.

Paula Rosenthal, Playhouse Disney's vice president of original programming, said during a visit to the set last month that she was excited to be involved with a show acted out by people. “When I started at the channel, we were doing Out of the Box and Bear in the Big Blue House,” she said, referring to a hosted kids' show and another with a man in a mechanical blue bear suit who lived with other animals in the aforementioned house.

“Everything is cyclical,” she continued. “To have this [genre] come back, it's been such a joy.”

On that visit to the Sprites set Nov. 10 — while Episode 119, “Spring Tuning,” was being taped — humor was all around. Between takes, the puppeteers, including Tartaglia, stayed in character but clowned around while anyone who could do so listened in. Amid one scene, the puppeteers, staying in character, start singing Kumbaya. As a group they've even been known to sing the theme to The Golden Girls.

“You will never see a happier crew,” Rosenthal said.

There are carryovers from the interstitial segments, but also several changes.

The set is more elaborate, designed by six-time Emmy winner Laura Brock (Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?) with such centerpieces as the Sprites' home in Grotto's Grove, Johnny's house in the forest and his backyard, which are linked to the grove by a secret tunnel. The set is full of small wonders, like talking flowers and a reflecting pond, where cameras can shoot upward from under the water.

Where there were two Sprites in the interstitials, now there are four: Ginger, the air Sprite; Basil, the earth Sprite; Lily, the water Sprite and Root, the youngest, a budding earth Sprite. Their puppeteers are, in order, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, Tim Lagasse, Carmen Osbahr and Heather Asch, who spent much of her down time on set entertaining visiting children as Root.

The shows are intended to teach kids positive social attitudes and behaviors, and there are many pro-environment and pro-community messages.

In addition to introducing kids to Broadway-caliber music, Tartaglia, co-executive producer Jill Gluckson (Reading Rainbow) and other principals in the show said that they hoped to create a magical world unlike what kids see on pre-school programming today.

“I think I just want every kid in the world to look at a tree in their backyard or on the street or something like that and think maybe that's got a portal in it that takes them to Grotto's Grove,” Tartaglia said.

They also hope the show is a hit and gets renewed soon, so as to keep cast and crew together.

And if it's a hit, will there be more live-action, music-based new series on Playhouse Disney? “I hope so,” Rosenthal said, smiling.