GSN NEWS STAFF
It was 9:15 p.m. on a Friday and the studio was buzzing with excitement.
Grade-school girls raced through the halls, packing up their dance bags, storing the prop brooms and buckets and singing bits and pieces of the musical number they’d just rehearsed.
It was a four-hour rehearsal to cap a long school week, yet they were untouched by fatigue. If anything, the hours of blocking, dancing and singing filled them with renewed energy.
For the cast of “Annie Jr.,” the experience is magical.
The show, produced by Gilbert’s Studio 3 Performing Arts, in partnership with Limelight Performing Arts, will play at Mesa Arts Center Dec. 14-20 with a bigger-than-expected cast of actors and actresses from the East Valley and Ahwatukee.
So many young actors turned out for auditions that director Caroline Wagner opted to double- and even triple-cast many of the featured roles, dividing them into Blue, Red and Green casts.
“I like performing a lot because it makes people excited and happy if they’re down,” said 8-year-old Baylee Horvath, who plays the role of Kate, one of the orphans.
Emma Martin, 10, who plays Tessie, added, “The fact that I get to express myself to an audience, to make them laugh or feel what I’m feeling, is awesome.”
Despite their youth, the kids bring a giant-size share of talent to the stage. Many cast members are decorated actors, with AriZoni and National Youth Arts awards and nominations to their credit.
Among them is 17-year-old Jessica Sinodis, who recently starred as Grizabella in Studio 3-Limelight’s summer production of “Cats” and dazzled audiences with a voice that has Broadway written all over it.
She played the role of Pepper in Studio 3’s “Annie Jr.” when she was 11—it was one of the studio’s very first productions—and now comes full circle to portray the bawdy, hilarious and ill-tempered Miss Hannigan.
“Playing Miss Hannigan was always a childhood dream,” said Sinodis. “It is not like any theater experience I’ve ever had. Unlike me, she hates children and is very crass. This is definitely a role that has taken me out of my comfort zone.”
Added Emma England, Studio 3 owner and “Annie Jr.” artistic director, “You can’t help but be swept up when you see the cast perform.”
The depth of the cast’s talent is especially evident among the three 11-year-old performers playing Annie, a dream role for any young girl.
Julia Pitman of Chandler heads up the Blue cast. With her red hair, sparkling eyes and freckled cheeks, she truly embodies the role the Annie. She is a skilled and seasoned performer with a big voice and a kind heart, who is a mentor and big sister to her younger cast mates.
Mesa’s Reagan Plank, who doubles-up as Annie in the Green cast and Pepper in the Red cast, may be the surprise break-out performer of the group. Even her mom, Amy Plank, had no idea her daughter could sing like that.
Alyse Negroni, who recently moved to Chandler from Yuma, stars in the Red cast. She looks the part, acts the part and sings with a pure, yet powerful, voice.
But the show goes well beyond beautiful singing.
When choosing the final cast—after a week-long audition process and multiple call-backs—the directors carefully evaluated the skill, the look and even the height of each performer.
“When choosing our casts, we lined up the girls to make sure they were stair steps in height,” said Wagner. “Just like the movie, Molly had to be the smallest, Duffy had to be the tallest, and Annie was right in the middle. Every single one of them needed to be able to hold their own in singing, acting and dancing.”
Surrounding the orphans is a cast of teenage actors, many of them Studio 3-Limelight regulars. They include Maddy Rathbun (Grace), Matthew Pitman (Rooster), Sarah Golden (Ms. Hannigan, Blue cast, and Ms. Pugh, Red cast) and Nicolas Caglia (Rooster, Blue cast, and Drake, Red cast).
Others, like Kendall Kingdesky (Lily St. Regis) and Kate LeCheminant (Tessie) have built their repertoire in productions at other theaters.
Under the artistic direction of England, a life-long performer, the dancing is fun and energetic, yet challenging and polished.
While “Annie Jr.” is among the most-performed musicals of all time, the dancing in Studio 3-Limelight’s production gives this show a brand all its own.
“It was important to me to create a show that’s fresh and unexpected—not the same old ‘Annie’ everyone has already seen,” added England. “The choreography is an area where we are really bringing some magic, not only with dancing but with tumbling, too.”
For example, “Hard Knock Life” is full of handsprings, walkovers, and even flips over broomsticks and blankets. “NYC,” a song featuring the entire cast, explodes with energy, bringing to life the magic of New York City through tap, jazz and acrobatics.
Performing in “Annie Jr.” is a dream for the cast and even their parents, who grew up quoting lines and singing along to the famous 1986 movie. The red-headed orphan, full of spunk and wisdom, imparts a lesson for the generations: never lose hope, take good care of those around you, and life will turn out just fine.
“There’s something uplifting and magical about this show, and it goes well beyond the talent of our actors or the quality of the performance,” said Wagner, an accomplished director, choreographer, actress and teacher. “In a world that’s increasingly troubled, the sweetness and innocence of ‘the sun will come out tomorrow’ fills us with hope for the future.”
It’s a lesson, too, for the kids in the cast, who put in hundreds of hours in rehearsals to produce the best possible performance.
“This is what I love to do,” said Lily Nelson, who plays Duffy in the Red cast. “It’s really fun getting to know the other kids in the cast. We share our talents, we support each other, and we encourage each other never to give up and just to keep on doing what we love.”
Performances are scheduled at the Mesa Arts Center Nesbitt/Elliot Playhouse Dec. 14-20. Tickets are $15 and are available for purchase at mesaartscenter.com, keyword “Annie Jr.,” or by calling the MAC box office at 480-644-6500. Group discounts are available. Information: limelightyouththeater.org or 480-545-1492.