By Alicia Dziak
If you agree that you’re never fully dressed without a smile, turn-your-frown-upside-down moments are guaranteed at the Springville Center for the Arts’ upcoming production of Annie! Making its way to Springville May 17-27, the story follows the familiar story of little orphan Annie, who is chosen to stay at billionaire Oliver Warbuck’s mansion for the holidays. She is taken from her orphanage, and the clutches of evil Miss Hannigan. When Annie wins the hearts of Warbucks and his staff, they set out on an epic mission to find Annie’s parents. Meanwhile, Miss Hannigan, in partnership with her brother Rooster and his girlfriend Lily, attempt to make some money out of this unique situation.
The production by the Springville Players is directed by Don Wesley, who was an English/theatre teacher and administrator at Gowanda High School where he directed some 90 plays and musicals before taking an administrative position at Orchard Park High School for 16 years. He is an avid student of acting and directing technique and over the past few years has served as an acting coach for musicals at Lake Shore and Hamburg High Schools and for HHS summer theatre camp. Don lives in Gowanda and is a member of SDC, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, a national organization of stage directors.
For Annie, Wesley assembled a diverse cast. “Our cast members are from several western New York communities including Springvillle, East Aurora, Holland, Williamsville, East Concord, Hamburg, Buffalo, West Seneca, South Wales and Sanborn,” he said. Local cast members include Maggie Boyle and Brooke Ryzycki (both orphan girls), Donna Benstead (ensemble), Jennifer Weber (ensemble), Charles Weber (ensemble), Jonathan Horton (Rooster Hannigan), Sue Fishbeck (ensemble), Pam Morley (ensemble), and Cory Golabek (ensemble).
“We have been in rehearsal since early March, meeting four nights a week from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.” Wesley explained. “We worked on the show in layers little by little learning music, choreography, blocking and finally character work always bending each element to the story line and focusing on the individual exploration of each role by the cast members who must ultimately take over and bring the show and its story to life.”
Among the challenges of directing this particular production, Wesley noted the size and lack of wing space at the Mongerson Theatre and limited out-front lighting availability was an obstacle, especially for a major production like Annie. “It’s a musical, so it has music and dance challenges as well as acting and getting the story across,” he said. “There are a lot of roles in the show, over 50. We could never have space for that many performers at the Mongerson, so we use an ensemble, which complements the cast of leading and supporting actors and calls on the 10-person ensemble company to play as many as five roles each.”
One such actor portraying multiple roles is Springville Times’ writer Jennifer Weber, along with her husband, Charles. Jennifer is part of the ensemble and also plays Missus Greer and Connie Boylan.
“I’m in love with musical theater and always want to get on stage whenever I see a performance,” she said. “I did a few musicals in high school but nothing else until now. Not really sure why now— right place, right time, right amount of gumption to try out?”
Annie has been a learning experience for Jennifer. “The biggest challenge by far is how much time it takes to practice and get the show ready,” she explained. “I’m amazed at how much work is done by so many volunteers who do the work because they love it. It’s truly impressive.”
She added that, “ It’s probably the most fun I’ve had doing something for myself. I love being a part of this cast. Not only do I get to sing and act (and pretend to know how to dance) but I get to do it with my husband, one of my best friends from college who tried out, and a dear friend who has been doing musicals in WNY for years and years. The cast instantly bonded and I am already thinking about missing seeing them every day after the production ends!”
Jennifer’s husband, Charles (Chuck) Weber, plays Bundles the laundryman, a servant in many Warbucks mansion scenes, Bert Healy in the radio show scene and Louis Howe, President Roosevelt’s secretary.
“I auditioned on a whim along with Jen, and I was hoping at best for ensemble,” Chuck said of landing his multiple roles. “I haven’t been in anything since high school.”
Chuck said working on the songs was the biggest challenge for him, as he doesn’t consider himself to be the world’s greatest singer. He must have worked hard, though, because he ended up with a solo number in the play, which he said has been his favorite part. “The radio show is a blast to perform!” he said.
Another local cast member many audience members are sure to recognize is Donna Benstead, music teacher at SES. While Donna has directed numerous school plays over the years, this is her first time acting in one.
“I’ve always wanted to be in a musical, and since both of my sons are out and on their own, I thought it would be a good time to try it. ‘Annie’ is one of my favorites!” Donna said.
She said she liked not being in charge of the entire musical. “I’ve truly enjoyed letting someone else take care of the many details involved in putting on a musical,” she noted. “It’s been so fun for me to see what my students experience when participating in one of my musicals.”
Donna said her favorite part of being in Annie has been the new friends she’s made. “We are like a family now, and we miss each other over the weekends,” she noted. “I also have enjoyed singing all of the songs; I love to sing!”
“We are excited to be opening on the 17th and ready to have our audiences join us,” Wesley said. “They can look forward to a classic story of the 1930’s based on the highly popular comic strip about ‘Little Orphan Annie’ with great music and inventive staging. The Broadway production ran for over 2,300 performances, and we are certain our production will be enjoyed by everyone, young and old alike.”
Performances May 17, 18, 19, 25, 26 at 7:30 p.m. and May 20 and 27 at 2 p.m. Due to high demand for tickets, an additional show was added Thursday, May 24. Many shows are already sold out, but for the latest info on availability, call (716) 592-9038 or at SpringvilleArts.org.