MADISON — Some stars of tomorrow could well be making their stage debuts next weekend when the drama department at Western Rockingham Middle School presents “Annie Jr.,” a production written especially for children.

Show times are at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, May 16-18, in the school auditorium.

Based on the “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip, “Annie Jr.” is a one-act musical about a young, red-headed orphan in 1930s New York City who steals the heart of billionaire Oliver Warbucks when she comes to stay at his mansion for the holidays. It’s a timeless, classic musical that features hit songs like “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” and “NYC.”

In her second year at Western Rockingham Middle, music teacher Carly Hutton organized drama students and did “Beauty and the Beast Jr.,” the first production for the school last spring.

It was a hit with the students, faculty and families, so Hutton began planning for “Annie Jr.” Not only were the students involved, but many parents helped build and paint sets and get the proper wardrobes.

“Theater is a wonderful place for students of all backgrounds and ways of life to learn to work together and treat each other with respect,” Hutton said.

“Directing a large-scale production like this takes a great deal of energy, focus and organization, but it is highly rewarding,” said the Asheboro native. The three-month process of casting, choreographing, blocking and rehearsing can be draining, she admitted, but “there’s nothing like seeing it all come together to form something truly special.”

Students don’t just sing and act in rehearsals, Hutton, said. They have “long discussions about how theater brings people together and how each person has a part to play, big or small.”

Seventh-grader Audrey Seiler plays the lead role. Although this is her second year in chorus, Audrey said she has sung all her life and is a member of Western Rockapella, the contemporary a cappella group Hutton organized at the school.

Last year, Audrey was Chip in “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” and decided to try out for “Annie” this year. She loved learning the choreography but admits “sometimes it pushed me outside of my comfort zone. Rehearsals can be long and tiring, but it will pay off whenever the show opens.”

The most challenging part of playing the lead role has been memorizing all the lines and blocking and being at almost every single rehearsal, she said.

“It’s definitely time-consuming,” she said.

Hutton admitted to some of the same feelings.

“There are definitely days I leave rehearsal feeling discouraged, fearful that it won’t all come together,” she said. “There are hundreds of tiny details and moving parts to a show like this.”

However, Hutton has learned to delegate and ask for help when she needs it.

Her student choreographer, Chloe Motsinger, playing the role of Miss Hannigan, “has saved my bacon on more than one occasion,” the teacher said.

“Being in ‘Annie’ has been amazing,” Chloe, an eighth-grader, said. “Coming together to create something and becoming so much closer to people has honestly been the best.”

Kate Kallam and Paige Goff, the stage management team, “are incredibly helpful in making sure rehearsal runs smoothly,” Hutton said. “When I’m at a loss for ideas, students and parents step up to help. It’s 100 percent a group effort, and I’m exceedingly grateful for the support that the parents of cast members provide.”

“My favorite part of stage managing a production like this is being able to make suggestions in the production,” said Goff, a seventh-grader. “I feel like my opinions matter now and more people listen to me.”

“It’s a big time commitment, really fun and hard at the same time,” said eighth-grader Alaina Wright. “We do difficult choreography and sing really tough notes, but since we rehearse about 5-6 days a week, the orphans and other main characters, I think, have gotten a lot closer.”

Asked about being in her first large-scale production, sixth-grader Emma Bullins said, it was exciting but admitted it also was “a little nerve wracking. But it is so much fun and you make so many new friends.” She plays Molly.

“I enjoy musical theater,” said Valerie White, a seventh-grader in the role of Lily St. Regis. “For me, it’s entertaining to show a side of me that rarely comes out and to see that in other people.”

Valerie said Hutton makes the production fun for everyone.

“I can see how much she really cares about each and every one of us and that makes musical theater enjoyable,” she said.

The cast, crew and teacher admit they will be sad when the last curtain falls.

“When this show closes, I won’t worry if every single note was in tune or if every set change went smoothly,” Hutton said. “I’ll cherish the memories of a shy student coming out of their shell for the first time.

“I’ll remember the times we doubled over in hysterical laughter when the choreography fell apart during rehearsal,” she said.

“I’ll treasure the moments of ‘real talk’ when we discuss what it means to overcome stage fright and give yourself grace when you don’t do something well the first time,” she said.

“Those are the moments that students learn and grow. Those are the moments lifelong memories are made. And in those moments, I’m learning and growing, too,” Hutton said.

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Reidsville native Ann Fish has lived in Eden since 1979. Contact her at annsomersfish@yahoo.com.

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