Ford Middle School's production of 'Annie' part of national program
Rebecca Collins knows how to project.
Dressed in a blue bathrobe, she belts out “Little Girls,” a song about the trials and tribulations of running an orphanage. As she sings, she struts across the stage. And she owns it.
It’s dress rehearsal time for the Ford Middle School production of “Annie,” set for Thursday at the school.
Rebecca, in the role of orphanage matron Mrs. Hannigan, is one of 27 students at the Midland school who will team up for the musical.
She and her fellow cast members have been working for months on the production, with a little help from some new showbiz friends.
Ford is one of 20 schools around the country chosen this year for the “Smash: Make a Musical” program, sponsored by NBC television. “Smash” is an NBC show about the behind-the-scenes drama of Broadway theater production.
“Smash: Make a Musical” is administered by iTheatrics, a New York-based musical theater education organization that works with kids and teachers.
The program gave Ford a $1,700 grant to pay stipends for two lead teachers, along with production design and technical costs. It also provided actors’ scripts, a director’s guide, recorded music and more.
And “Smash: Make a Musical” brought Marty Johnson, resident director for iTheatrics, to Ford for some professional coaching.
Back in February, about two dozen students attended the first of his two workshops.
Prauper Jones said he turned out because he likes “singing, dancing and participating.”
Kasey Freudenstein said he already had experienced what it’s like to put on a show through a children’s theater program in Puyallup, adding, “I know how much fun it is.”
“One thing I can tell you we are going to do is to have fun,” Johnson told students. “I’m also going to talk to you about what it means to put on a musical.”
Johnson started with a simple game: students tossed a bean bag around a circle and practiced making eye contact.
“In a musical, there’s acting, singing and dancing,” he said. But the most important thing a musical can do, he added, is tell a story.
Soon, the Ford kids were telling a simple tale, acting out a wordless version of “Cinderella” that said it all through body language. Next, Johnson taught them a simple dance. He had them perform the dance as if they were zombies, then monkeys. The workshop closed with kids singing a song from 1950s Broadway hit “The Music Man.”
While Johnson’s coaching gave the Ford kids a jump start into the world of musical theater, the real stars of the show – at least in terms of organization – are Ford staff members. Choir teacher Lisa Sutter is the director and Adrian Elmo, the school’s psychologist – who is a vocalist outside of school – is the musical director. They have both been working with cast members several days each week in after-school rehearsals. Even Ford Principal Heather Renner, a former gymnastics coach, was drafted to help with some choreography.
The educators say that a school musical offers students much more than lessons in stagecraft. Putting on a play involves teamwork – an important skill for kids who might not be interested in playing sports. It helps them learn to empathize with their characters. And it helps them gain confidence.
That confidence was evident as Ford cast members put the finishing touches on their production of “Annie.” Two weeks before their big performance, cast members were busy in rehearsal.
In the title role of Annie, there’s Kaitlyn Klutz. She decided to try out for the musical at the last minute and was surprised when she won the starring role.
“It was the last day we were supposed to sign up and I said, ‘Hey. Why not?’” she said.
“I just dipped my foot in the water,” she said. But she said winning the title role felt more like being hit by a tsunami.
She took a deep breath and took on the challenge. Now, underneath the curly red wig that is her character’s trademark, Kaitlyn exudes self-assurance on stage.
Charlie Johnson, in his first school production, plays a character named Rooster, who’s a bit of a con man. He wears pants held up by suspenders, a slouchy hat and a fake mustache. In rehearsal, he plays his big scene like a trouper, even when there’s a mustache malfunction.
Director Sutter explains to one of the actors why her hot-pink Nikes won’t work if she’s trying to portray a Depression-era orphan. Sutter reminds herself to bring bow ties, and to borrow a spotlight for one scene.
“That was rough, guys,” musical director Elmo tells the actors after a run-through. “That was rough.”
But as the entire cast takes final bows, he’s smiling.