by Constance Howard
*Editor’s Note: We apologize for the late posting of this review. Technical difficulties kept us from publishing in a timely manner.
Never seen the timeless classic about a group of adorable orphans lead by a spunky redhead ? Or would you like to revisit a favorite childhood musical memory? You now have the chance! Opening to a sold-out audience, YAAL’s production of Annie JR. has taken to the stage!
YAAL (Youth Actors Academy of Lincoln) is a non-profit organization whose main goal is to bring children exposure and training to the joy and magic of theatre; regardless of their previous experience or financial background. Each theater camp brings a new production, new friends, new abilities and a new sense of accomplishment. The latest offering, Annie Jr., is a fun way to travel through a part of our country’s past.
Based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” and set in the depression era 1930’s, Annie Jr. is filled with sweeping numbers and large characterizations. We, the audience, are granted glimpses into the lives of the title character, her ragtag group of orphans, and an eclectic mix of adults traipsing in and out of their lives.
Upon entering the viewing space, I was immediately struck by the sense of wonder surrounding most of the audience members. Before the show even began, there was a buzz of excitement. For many, this was the first time that their children had ever been to a theatre production, let alone performed in one. Family members were excited and nervous for their kids in equal measure.
Curtain time drew near, and the directors entered for their opening speech. We were all enthusiastically regaled with stories of the time and effort that each child had contributed in making the production a success. After being reminded about personal devices, the show began…
Our attention was pulled in immediately! City-goers streamed in from all directions, including the aisles, and drew attention to the bustle and hustle (crooks included) of big city life. Attention to detail was given to each person entering the stage. Whether it be the everyday citizen heading to work, the apple seller trying to peddle her trade, the city cop walking his beat, the dog catcher chasing after strays, the out-of-towner making her way to the city to “make it big”, or pickpockets stealing wallets and purses from right under our noses – it was like we were a part of the city ourselves.
With music and lighting changes, this large-scale opening tableau effectively narrowed focus as the scene transitioned from the heart of downtown to the orphanage where we get our first look at Annie herself.
When finally given a glance of our soon-to-be-favorite orphans, we are immediately granted moments filled with tension, individual personalities, and laughter. These girls, regardless of stage experience, created a very real picture of friendship and the antagonism that sometimes goes hand-in-hand with living in close quarters. Life, although somewhat bleak for these orphans, is still filled with moments of hopefulness.
Maya Brown (Annie) showed great charm and spunkiness while introducing us to her antics. Singing “Maybe” – Annie allows us to see her version of her dream parents; effortlessly interacting and dancing their way into our hearts. She and the girls easily illustrate how tough life has been with “It’s a Hard Knock Life” while not letting life actually keep them down.
Each orphan was portrayed with heart! Hannah Baker (Kate – one of the tiniest orphans), Audrey Haugen (Tessie – the emotional one), Sofia Vest (Pepper – the tough girl), Jozy LeFleur (filling in as July – the quiet one), Maryn Studley (Duffy – the mature one), and Edie Ulrich (Molly – the little scene stealer), along with remaining orphans Kate Harris (Posie), Elliot Harwick (Truly), Vanessa Stauefer (Ginger) and Anna Nykodym (Summer) – all sang, danced, and charmed the audience with their smiles, enthusiasm, and sheer dedication to being present on stage.
Next up in this fast-paced romp, Brooke Lowe (Ms. Hannigan) is introduced as the girls’ (especially Annie’s) arch nemesis. Her hilarious number “Little Girls” has you wondering why the heck she is working at an orphanage in the first place. She, along with her cohorts in crime Jack McCormick (Rooster) and his goofy companion played by Hailey Truell (Lily St. Regis), provided great over-the-top scheming – highlighted by their fun, crafty rendition of “Easy Street”. This bunch of “Ne’er Do Wells” almost has us rooting for them to succeed.
Sophie Belka (Grace Farrell) gave a poised and polished performance; providing us with an example of exactly what we’d expect from a high- class personal assistant. Coupled with Georgia Eberhardt (Oliver Warbucks), we got to see how the other half lives.
The large ensemble worked very well together; often playing multiple parts and fleshing out musical numbers while navigating both scene and costumes changes.
The City Inhabitants: Lexi Hansen (Apple Seller), Lacie Carlson (Dog Catcher), Hope Gibbons (Starlet Hopeful), Carson Eberhardt (Bundles) and Ruthie Stokes.
The Police Force: Olivia Rowe (Officer Ward), MaKenzie Kottmeyer (Beat Cop) and Elli Schrader (Beat Cop).
The Entertainers: Cali McBride (Bert Healy), Rosana Chambers (Usherette), and Sophie Ostermeyer (Sound FX).
FDR’s Group: Ty Erickson (Pres. FDR), Emmy Heinrich (FDR’s Assistant), and Olivia Jarnagin (Chauffer).
Warbucks’ Mansion Staff: Nixon Seegebarth (Drake), Ella Studley (Cecille), Tessa Gold (Annette), Ashlynn Kasik (Mrs. Greer/dance captain), Sarah Webb (Mrs. Pugh), Tatum Hernandez, Taylor Nykodym, and Westyn Brown
… laid out a buffet of sight, sound, and movement on which the audience could feast.
And last, but definitely not least, Lindsey Klein (Sandy) gave an adorable performance as an orphan of the fuzzy type who has now found her forever home.
Cute costumes, choreography more complex and fluid than one would expect from a children’s theatre camp production, effective use of space, and integrated scene transitions were the hallmarks of this production. My most important take away, however, was the visible evidence of these children’s love of what they were doing. Congratulations to the future of theatre!
Constance Howard discovered the theatre at an early age and never grew out of her love for its magic. With a family full of actors, writers, and musicians, the theatre allows her to follow her passion. She’s a mom of many, part-time actress, and avid theatre-goer.
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