Michael Harp feels the magic of the Muny every time he steps on the stage.
The 12-year-old from Swansea will appear as Puggsley in "The Addams Family," which opens tonight and runs through Sunday, his 12th show in five seasons.
While tearing into a Chicken Caesar Salad during his lunch break from rehearsing, Harp expressed his sheer joy at the opportunity to perform on the heralded stage of the oldest and largest outdoor theater in the country.
"You know when you step on the stage, it's going to be magical, that the performance is going to be spectacular," he said. "The Muny makes magic. It's that way for the performers, and I think the audience."
His eyes wide with excitement, he shared his enthusiasm about being part of summers at the Muny, trying to soak up everything he can from the creative teams surrounding him.
"It's been very fun. I've learned a lot. I am so grateful that I can be taught by these people," he said. "They are geniuses in their fields. They have helped me so much."
The son of Terry and Mary Harp, he has an older brother, Jordan, 18, who attends University of Illinois-Chicago, studying radiology, and a sister, Carlin, 22, who is a graduate student at St. Louis University, studying public health.
Mary Harp said they all recognize how fortunate he is.
"He has an appreciation for the incredible talent that he gets to learn from every time he's selected for a show. He loves the directors and choreographers and creative teams he's worked with," she said.
At age 8, he was cast in his first show, "Beauty and the Beast," in 2010, as a salt-and-pepper shaker in the youth ensemble..
"When I stepped on the stage and looked out, I went 'Holy Cow! That's huge!' My Mom said just wait until you hear the applause. After we did 'Be Our Guest,' it sounded like thunder!" he said.
That was 2010, and he went on to play Randolph in "Bye Bye Birdie," with one of his mentors, Lara Teeter, playing Albert, the next year, along with chorus work that season and the next. Last year, he appeared in four shows -- "Shrek," "Mary Poppins," "Les Miserables" and "Spamalot."
This year, he was cast in featured roles, as Michael in "Billy Elliot," and as Puggsley Addams, as well as chorus in the season finale "Hello, Dolly!"
"He has worked very hard at dance and voice, and that has put him in the position to be able to get these roles. But being selected depends so much on what the director is looking for, and there are so many gifted children going for these roles that I believe he knows how special this summer is for him," Mary Harp said.
Playing Michael, Billy's best friend in the season opener, was a memorable experience for several reasons. He could relate to the story, and liked how they remained loyal friends, and his scene-stealing "Expressing Yourself" number was his favorite dance to date.
He gained valuable insight working with 14-year-old Tade Biesinger, a Broadway veteran who played the title character.
"He was humble. He didn't brag. He had manners," Harp said. "Even though he was older than me, he didn't ignore me like some other older teens normally would do. He noticed all the other little kids too. He was nice to everyone."
Now immersed as the youngest Addams in the kooky macabre family made famous through a popular TV sitcom and two movie adaptations, Harp is thrilled to be part of this musical comedy, a Muny debut.
"The Addams Family" features music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa ("Wild Party," "Big Fish") and a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice ("Jersey Boys"), and opened on Broadway in 2009 with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth in the leading roles.
"I just like being an Addams. It is such a funny family. It is going to be a spectacular show," he said. The cast features some heavy hitters, as in Rob McClure ("Shrek," "Mary Poppins") as Gomez and Jenny Powers ("Mary Poppins") as Morticia.
Harp was in both "Shrek" and "Mary Poppins" last summer, so he knew the pair playing his parents, and is a big fan.
"They are both sweet. She is a goddess of the stage. He is hysterical. I love the show," he said, noting how funny Uncle Fester, Lurch and Grandma are, too. "They are out-of-the-park hysterical. Wednesday's pretty funny too -- she has a 'normal' boyfriend!"
He familiarized himself with the sitcom through YouTube, and laughed recalling some of the shenanigans he witnessed.
"Every single character has this funny thing they do, like Uncle Fester with a light bulb, Lurch playing the organ, Morticia cutting her flowers," he said.
"It is a fantastic musical! It shows how they cope, accept each other and love each other as a family. I think it's better than the movie, but that's just my opinion," he said, with a little shrug and a smile.
Harp said the cast is creative, and they are putting much work into their characters. "The goal is that it's going to be big, and it's going to be great," he said.
"Michael focuses pretty hard on what the director wants from a character, and is learning to really try to understand his characters and how they relate to the others in the show," Mary Harp said.
Harp developed the showbiz spark while playing with Legos and immersing himself in make-believe as a young lad.
"I would make these little people, and I would create stories, and make up movies in my room," he said.
And when he accompanied his sister, Carlin, to tap dance lessons at COCA (Center of Creative Arts in St. Louis), he was hooked. He began taking lessons at age 4 from Tracy Dupre, and she is now his advanced tap teacher.
"It looked like so much fun to me. I wanted to do it. I just kept progressing to other things," he said. At COCA, he takes jazz, modern, ballet, and hip hop classes too.
He has auditioned for the Muny every March, among the hundreds of youngsters who show up to learn the first dance number, wait for callbacks, and then go through the whittling process. The directors cast the season at the same time.
"You're either put in one or more or none," he said. He previously has been part of the Muny Kids too, as performing ambassadors.
He appeared as Kurt in "The Sound of Music" this spring at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, and has also performed at the Touhill Center for Performing Arts and the Fabulous Fox, where he was a Lollipop Guild Munchkin in "The Wizard of Oz" in 2011.
After school and on weekends, he takes dance, voice and acting lessons. But he also fits in time to be a normal pre-teen.
"If I'm not working on a show, I'm riding my bike, playing gutterball in the pool, playing Nerf with my friend Carson," he said. "I'm reading Harry Potter books, and I'm on the seventh one. I love them."
But he knows it takes hard work to succeed.
"If you want to be better than you were the day before, you have to practice. You can't be sleeping on the couch or playing videogames. It's a hard business and you have to make your luck," he said.
He will enter seventh grade this fall, and hopes to keep pursuing his passion -- "Definitely my whole life."
"It's just fun to do it, to express a different character every single time. I love performing. You get to be in different worlds. That's the magic part," he said.
His father, Terry, said he marvels at his son's ability to be so natural on the Muny stage.
"I am amazed that he can perform so easily in such a big venue when talking in front of a group of five people makes most people nervous," he said.
Rehearsals are typically 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Michael is up early, making his own breakfast, packing his lunch, cleaning up in the kitchen, and talking to his Mom about how good the cast is.
"He's a pretty happy kid," she said.