Oxford Area High School stages “Annie”
● By Steven Hoffman
Julie Wydrzynski, the director of choral music at Oxford Area High School, is eager for the community to see this year’s musical production of the Broadway hit, “Annie.”
Part of that excitement can be attributed to Natalie Giovan’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the title character.
“Natalie should just start going by the name, ‘Annie,’” Wydrzynski explained. “She does such a wonderful job of portraying this character. She is so lovable in the role, not to mention that she has the perfect voice for the character.”
Indeed, Giovan exudes the innocent optimism that is at the heart of “Annie,” as she talks about how this is a dream role for her. Giovan previously played “Annie” at Carousel Performing Arts in Kennett Square, and she is looking forward to the performances at Oxford Area High School where she will once again sing classics like “It's the Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” for audiences.
“I grew up watching the movie,” Giovan explained. “I love the songs. I'm excited to sing those uplifting songs and connect with the audience.”
Staging “Annie” requires good work from dozens of people who are needed to fill out the large cast and crew. In mid-February, with nearly two and a half weeks left for rehearsals, Wydrzynski was confident with how things are progressing.
“I am pleased to say that we are ahead of schedule with rehearsals,” she explained. “We haven't been hit too hard with snow this year so rehearsals haven't been as rushed as they can be. Each year, I tell my students, 'Scripts memorized by February!' It is rare that this actually happens, but I was shocked when they came in Feb. 1 with no books in hand.”
One of the reasons that “Annie” was selected as the musical this year was because there is a talented group of students who could round out the rather large and diverse cast.
Meghan Pitney is playing Miss Hannigan, while Kaylee Madden is portraying Molly. Shane Wilson, a high school senior, is taking on the demanding role of Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks. Explaining that Warbucks was himself an orphan, Wilson said that he likes the challenge of playing a character who reveals his softer side as the musical goes on.
Robbie Miller is portraying Rooster, who is Miss Hannigan's brother. This is the third production that Miller has been involved with at the high school, and the role of Rooster offered him a different challenge—specifically the large amount of dancing that the role requires.
“I get to step out of my comfort zone,” Miller said. “I like to try something new. And there's more singing involved, which I always love.”
Miller, a high school senior, said that “Annie” ranks as one of his favorite musicals. “I really like the overall story,” he explained.
Principal Christopher Dormer, a big supporter of the school's drama department, was enlisted to play the pivotal role of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the wheelchair-bound U.S. president who guided the country through the Great Depression. Wydrzynski praised Dormer for his work ethic, which sets an example for the students involved with the musical.
“Mr. Dormer has been so wonderful to work with,” Wydrzynski said. “He has been dedicated to the part. In fact, he asked for his script in September, months before they even came in the mail. As soon as he got the script, he highlighted his part, practiced singing, and even embraced the wheelchair. He is setting an excellent example for our student actors, and it is generous of him to take all of this time after school to join us for rehearsals.”
This will not be Dormer's first time on the stage in front of a large audience. He said that he once played Merlin in “Camelot” when he was in high school. It was the largest role in the show that didn't have a singing part, he noted.
Dormer is taking a Roosevelt-esque “The-only-thing-we-have-to-fear-is-fear-itself approach to singing on stage.
Wydrzynski explained, “He has a pretty large role and is required to sing a few different songs. When we approached him at first, we mentioned there was a small speaking role that we wanted him to fill. Once he committed, we snuck in the fact that there would be a song or two. Rather than going back on his word, like many would when they found out they could be singing a solo for 3,000 people, he said, 'Not a problem. I'm already committed. I'm in.'”
Dormer will be joined on the stage by a number of other high school staff members who are playing members of Roosevelt's Cabinet. Assistant principal Michael Garrison is portraying Frances Perkins. English teacher Kevin Lentz is taking on the role of Harold Ickes. Spanish teacher Edward Heckmann is playing Louis Howe. Technical Education teacher Christopher Pierdomenico plays Cordell Hull, and Chris Turpen is portraying Henry Morgenthau. Athletic director Michael Price is also portraying a cabinet member. Oxford Area School District Superintendent David Woods will be playing the part of the radio announcer during the performances.
“Having our school principal and staff involved in this production is so exciting,” Wydrzynski explained. “The students in the show think it is just hilarious to see their own teachers out of their element as they sing and act on stage. The faculty really has done a wonderful job of putting this together. We are so lucky to have teachers willing to 'embarrass' themselves on stage for the sake of entertaining our students and community.”
The staff members are looking forward to the challenge.
“It's been challenging, fun, and I'm very excited,” Heckmann said.
Turpen's son, Tyler, is a senior at Solanco High School, and he has had the lead in several different shows. Turpen said that one reason that he signed up for “Annie” was because he wanted to surprise his son.
“The look on his face when I told him that I was going to be in a musical was priceless,” Turpen explained.
Dormer joked that, “Seeing if we hit the notes will be worth the price of admission.”
He added that the directors of the musical have been helping him and the other staff members with their preparations.
“Julie and [music director] Erin Kauppila are doing a wonderful job of coaching us through this,” Dormer explained.
Wydrzynski said that the two student directors, Larissa Smith and Medina Keita, have been a tremendous help as everyone gets ready for the upcoming performances.
“They are both seniors this year, which is a shame because I would like to have them student-direct every year,” Wydrzynski said. “They are incredibly helpful and have worked on the choreography, blocking, and rehearsing the students. We also have an excellent stage crew which is artistic and talented with building sets, as well as very efficient with moving sets. The stage crew advisor is Maria Sovine, and the student leaders of the stage crew are Callie Jaycox and Jason Miles.”
Performances will take place Thursday, March 3, Friday, March 4, and Saturday, March 5. Each performance begins at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door and are $12 for adults and $8 for students. A link to purchase tickets for the shows is available on the high school website at www.oxford.k12.pa.us/oahs, as well as at OxfordTheater.wikispaces.com.