EAST PEORIA — Thirteen-year-old Olivia Johnson of Washington has some challenges, but singing isn't one of them.

“She could sing before she could talk,” said Olivia’s mother, Paula Johnson. “When she was a toddler, she would hum snippets of songs.”

Olivia and her twin were born 14 weeks prematurely. Though her sister is fine, Olivia had bleeding in her brain at some point during the pregnancy. She was later diagnosed with both autism and cerebral palsy.

Olivia is playing the female lead Polly Baker in the Penguin Project’s “Crazy for You,” a Gershwin musical, Jan. 13 - 15 at Eastlight Theatre in East Peoria. Polly is the love interest of a New York City banker who wants to be a Broadway dancer. The pair meet when he’s sent to Deadrock, Nev., to seize the insolvent Gaiety Theater, owned by Polly's father.

All Penguin Project performers have some type of disability. The program is a powerful form of therapy that brings out each child’s abilities while alleviating the social isolation many families of disabled children experience. Founded in 2003 by Dr. Andy Morgan of Peoria, a specialist in the diagnosis and treatment of children with disabilities, the program is so popular that more than 100 children try out for every annual production.

“We started going to Penguin Project shows when Olivia was 6 or 7 years old,” said Johnson. “When we went to see 'Little Mermaid' I said, ‘Some of the kids have autism just like you; do you think you would like to do that?’ And her eyes lit up. ‘Oh, yes!’ she said.’”

Because the program can only accept about 80 children each year, Olivia was turned away when she first tried out — it turned out to be a good thing, because that fall the family's home was destroyed in the Washington tornado. Olivia was 11 when she finally got into the program.

“She was in the chorus. She loved it,” said Johnson. Though she had no concerns about Olivia’s singing, Johnson was worried her daughter wouldn’t be able to learn the choreography or follow verbal directions. Her biggest concern was about her daughter’s tendency to be overwhelmed in big groups.

“She doesn’t usually like being in crowds. It makes her edgy,” Johnson said. But Olivia did great. Her mother credits Penguin Project with improving Olivia’s social skills.

“Over the last couple years I’ve noticed that she has been able to manage a lot of situations that she used to have trouble with,” she said. “Olivia’s become increasingly more social, and can keep up her end of a conversation with a peer. She’s just more confident in all situations than she used to be.”

Along with singing, another thing that came easy to Olivia was memorizing her lines.

“Kids with autism have excellent memory,” said Johnson. And stage fright is not an issue — it doesn’t occur to Olivia to worry about what other people think, said her mother.

Many of the Penguin Project's best performers have been those with autism spectrum disorder, said Morgan.

“Kids with ASD are great to work with because they have an ability to listen and follow directions and do what you are asking them to do,” he said. Challenges that may be obvious when interacting one-on-one with a person with ASD disappear when they’re on stage, said Morgan.

“Olivia is playing a cowgirl. She is talking with a Western drawl, and learning how to be feisty, which is a challenge for a shy young lady,” said Morgan. “She’s learning a lot of things — she even had to learn how to slap somebody, and she was really uneasy with that.”

Olivia is a perfect example of what Penguin Project can do for young people with disabilities, said Morgan.

“She’s coming out of her shell and becoming more active. And it’s only going to continue.”

Not only is Olivia coming out of her shell, she’s having a wonderful time — she described the experience as "awesome." Though the busy rehearsal schedule has made the family’s schedule much more hectic, it’s been worth it, said Olivia's mother.

“She is definitely rising to the challenge. I think it’s more stressful for me than for her.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.

If you go

What: The Penguin Project presents "Crazy for You."

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 13 and 14, 2 p.m. Jan. 15.

Where: Eastlight Theatre in East Peoria Community High School, 1401 E. Washington St., East Peoria.

Tickets: $12. Can be reserved at www.eastlighttheatre.com.