Brenda Goodenburger listened to the Lady Gaga song “Born This Way” to prepare for her directorial debut of the musical “Honk Jr.”

The director used the pop tune as inspiration to stage the show, which is essentially a retelling of the storybook classic “The Ugly Duckling.” With today’s headlines about school bullying, she feels the musical is even more relevant for both children and adults.

“It’s about a duckling being bullied for the way he looks, and that’s so wrong because we should treat everyone with respect,” she said.

Goodenburger said she’s passionate about the theme of the musical, which opened Friday at Creative Stages Youth Theatre in Peoria.

For years, Goodenburger has championed equality for all people, no matter skin color or gender preference.

“I remember being in school as a kid and learning about the Trail of Tears and not understanding why the Native Americans were treated that way,” she said. “It’s cruel to mistreat people who are different from you.”

It’s a philosophy she teaches to her family, as well.

“As a mother of nine children, it’s important that they all know how crucial it is to respect people no matter what they look like or their lifestyle,” she said.

“Honk Jr.,” which is an abbreviated version of the original musical, is an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen tale with a message of tolerance.

The story follows Ugly, a duckling rejected by everyone except his mother, Ida, and a sly tomcat who wants to eat him.

This particular musical is mostly produced by regional, community and school theaters. In 1999, a professional production debuted in London on the West End and won the Olivier Award for Best Musical.

Kira Kadel, who portrays the Cat, said she’s excited about “Honk Jr.” and its message of acceptance.

“I think it’s awesome that you can be who you are and be awesome,” she said. “It’s about the beauty on the inside.”

Kadel, a 15-year-old sophomore at Glendale High School, said she is having fun as the villain of “Honk Jr.”

“I get to sneak around and play conniving, a role I don’t get to do too often,” said Kadel, who also is Goodenburger’s daughter.

For Goodenburger, the play has helped her explain to her cast the impact of bullying and excluding people who are different.

“In our cast, I don’t allow any cliques or groups, because the whole point to this story and musical is to accept people no matter what they look like, and that’s an important lesson we should all learn,” she said.

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