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The City Journals

Riverton Art’s Council’s ‘Annie’ circulates timely message

Mar 28, 2017 03:15PM ● By Tori LaRue

Oliver Warbucks, played by Todd Young, and Annie, played by Elizabeth Birkner, have a heart-to-heart conversation in Riverton Art’s Council’s production of “Annie.” (Tori La Rue/City Journals)

By Tori La Rue | [email protected]

A red-headed 11-year-old, 125 singers and dancers and an elaborate set brought a piece of 1930s New York City to 2017 Riverton in March.

Riverton Art’s Council’s “Annie” director, Kim Ostler, said it was her vision to capture the depression era as a learning tool for the cast and the audience by bringing Franklin Roosevelt and mentions of other historical figures to the Sandra N. Lloyd community center stage through the classic musical script about an optimistic orphan.

“I want people to understand what it was like then because history repeats itself,” she said.

The play follows an orphan named Annie as she leaves her crooked orphanage manager Miss Hannigan to visit millionaire Oliver Warbucks for Christmas. Through her cheerful attitude, she gives hope to a cynical Warbucks and unites people of all different personality types— including the president, a democrat, and Warbucks, a republican.

“We are back to the point where we need this message because we don’t understand each other,” Ostler said. “We’re at that point where we think people are aliens if they don’t understand our own ideology or political party, and that’s not where we need to be at. This musical teaches that.”

Ostler’s vision reverberated with Todd Young, who plays Warbucks. The actor, who has portrayed multiple lead roles in theaters throughout the valley, took a four-year hiatus from theater to focus more on his family. He said it was a wonderful experience to come back to the stage with such a timely show.

“It’s a show of a little girl bringing hope to a nation that is struggling through cultural and national issues, and it is a message of hope that all of us can have,” he said. “You can see the sunshine through whatever might happen.”

Other aspects of the show also made an impression on Young and his fellow cast members.

Young, a father of four, knows how to be what he called the “soft daddy” character Warbucks becomes but worked a little harder to find the “tough, in-charge, nobody-ever-broke-this-exterior” man that Warbucks starts out as. To own this character, Young ran lines with his older children, Parker and Alexia, who were also in the show with him. Spending time together with his kids was the most enjoyable part of the show, he said.

Young and his wife met performing in Riverton Arts Council’s “West Side Story” 15 years ago, so having the kids be part of a Riverton play brought things full-circle, he said.

Elizabeth Birkner, who was one of the two girls cast as Annie, said developing her character helped her feel happier and “never fully dressed without a smile,” like the lyrics to one of the play’s songs.

“It’s hard to get in the Annie mindset,” she said. “But I’d try to think about how I could make it without my parents and still be happy.”

The 11-year-old said she fully embodied her character by dyeing her once-blonde hair to a bright red and using Annie-like phrases such as “Golly” and “Leaping lizards” when talking with her friends at school.

Kathleen Higgins, who played Hannigan in Elizabeth’s cast, said Elizabeth was great to work with, even though she couldn’t let on to that on stage. Her angry, loud and outrageous character is bitter toward the orphans she’s in charge of, yet Higgins found a connection to this mean lady.

“I just didn’t think she was all bad, and I wanted to create some human-ness with the character,” she said.

Instead of yelling all her lines, Higgins chose to create a goofier persona for Hannigan.

“Because of that goofiness, I brought some of myself to the part,” Higgins said.

And even when it wasn’t part of her character, Higgins said she brought a bit of goofy character to the stage. In the last scene, Hannigan, feet in tow, is dragged off the stage by some of Warbucks’ servants. With wide eyes and big facial expressions, Higgins portrays Hannigan’s dismay at this situation, though Higgins herself said this as her favorite incident in the play.

This motion to get her off the stage is not written in the script. Originally, the servants were to escort Hannigan out of the scene, but Higgins, who was on crutches for several weeks while the show was in practice, dropped them on the ground one practice and let the servants drag her off the stage. Ostler liked the image this created, so she added that into the show’s blocking.

“It’s the people we work with that make the shows different and interesting,” Ostler said.

Altogether, more than 140 people, from actors and actresses to stage crew to directors, took part in the musical that ran from March 9 through March 20. Through 12 performances, they presented “Annie” to hundreds of Riverton residents.

“None of us get paid, but we’re happy to do this,” Ostler said. “Our paycheck comes when we see how happy the kids are in the cast or when we help the audience make connections.”

Riverton Arts Council’s next production is Fiddler on the Roof. Auditions are slated for April 27, 28 and 29, and the show will run from June 15–26.