By Colleen Sparks, GSN Staff Writer

A small theater inside ImprovMANIA Comedy Club in downtown Chandler has been seeing a flurry of activity as nearly 40 children and teens chat, set up props, belt out Broadway songs and perform jazzy steps on a packed stage.

The 37 children, ages 7 to 16, are preparing to present the classic musical “Annie Jr.” at Chandler Youth Theater, which is part of the comedy club on South Arizona Avenue, March 29-31.

The director, assistant director and choreographer are not much older than the kids they are preparing for the show set in the 1930s about lovable, red-haired orphan Annie and her heartfelt, dramatic and humorous journey to find her parents.

Director Maya Chavez, 21, is a student at Rio Salado College who plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in film and media studies at Arizona State University.

Assistant director Julie Fordyce, 18, is a senior at Mountain View High School in Mesa and choreographer Sofia Chavez, 15, Maya’s sister, is a freshman at Seton Catholic Preparatory.

Many of the children and teens involved in the production like the story and put their own twist on the iconic tale.

“Our kids are very talented and charismatic,” Maya said. “They bring a retelling of it. The power that they bring on stage, it’s phenomenal. It’s very powerful.”

Gunner Pettypool, 11, of Chandler, a fifth-grader at Hull Elementary School, likes playing Daddy Warbucks.

“I like that he’s bald,” Pettypool said. “I think he’s very tough and I like that about him. I didn’t live in that time; I know about the Great Depression. I think the audience will like that it’s our version of ‘Annie.’”

Jade Craig, 10, of Gilbert, a fifth-grader at Islands Elementary School, plays Annie, and it’s her fourth time performing in “Annie Jr.” She played the title role in other theaters.

“I like that she’s an orphan,” Craig said. “She’s not expecting going to Mr. Warbucks. I like that she expresses her feelings in music … I think in my opinion, it’s easier to understand. It’s harder to act it out.”

She said she believes the audience will “like the acting because some of it is cute.”

Ryan Creech, of Gilbert, 13, a seventh-grader at St. Timothy Catholic School in Mesa, plays Rooster Hannigan, Miss Hannigan’s brother.

“I like it all,” Creech said. “I’m a history guy so I look at this story through the time. It kinda shows how the people during the Great Depression struggled.”

He said it is fun to play a “bad guy.”

Playing his sibling on the stage, Mikayla Deely, 16, of Chandler, a sophomore at Arizona Connections Academy, is also having a great time. Deely plays the villainous Miss Hannigan, a character she said is not like her in real life.

“It’s actually a lot of fun,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to do a role like this. It’s my favorite; I love how Annie, she comes from nothing and she gets to be with Oliver Warbucks.”

While she is new to performing at Chandler Youth Theater, Deely has performed in shows in her native Idaho.

She said it is difficult to imagine life in Miss Hannigan’s time.

“It’s kind of hard to put your mind into that,” Deely said. “I think it’d be hard because of the Great Depression.”

Alina Pierzga, 12, of Chandler, a seventh-grader at Chandler Online Academy, plays a character with a softer touch – Grace Farrell, the personal secretary of Warbucks.

“I think she has a very motherly personality,” Pierzga said. “It’s very heartwarming. You’re gonna leave smiling and laughing. I love acting and singing.”

Maya calls directing the students “my dream job.”

She helped a teacher start a drama program at Christ the King Catholic School years ago and has been singing since she was 3. She has been classically trained in singing for about 10 years.

She often sings a few lines to help steer students when they forget lyrics or need to adjust their range during the rehearsal.

“Annie Jr. is naturally a wonderful show that features a talented ensemble,” said David Specht, co-owner of ImprovMANIA Comedy Club. “We think the audience will enjoy all of the talent in every role.”

Chandler Youth Theater will perform “Annie Jr.” at 5 p.m. on March 29 and at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. on March 30 at ImprovMANIA Comedy Club at 250 S. Arizona Ave; then at 5 p.m. on March 31 at Chandler Community Center, 125 E. Commonwealth Ave.

Information: improvmania.net