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“Annie Jr.” the culmination of months of work for Cataldo school students

Treva Lind Correspondent

A large-scale “Annie Jr.” musical arrives Thursday and Friday, a feat of 60 Cataldo Catholic School students who have rehearsed since October.

Both 7 p.m. shows in Ferris High School’s auditorium bring period costumes, choreographed dances and the play’s well-known songs, belted out by children ages 8 to 14. About 30 Ferris theater students will be their stage crew.

Cataldo has a long tradition of performing one big theater production each year. The South Hill K-8 school has about 400 students, and children in third through eighth grades can be in the larger shows, said Jenna Solberg, the school’s music and drama program director.

Cataldo’s drama program also gives younger children a spotlight. Solberg arranges for kindergartners through third-graders to perform a separate mini-musical in late spring at Cataldo. Those shows include costumes, songs, dance and speaking parts.

But the bigger February show requires elaborate preparations months in advance. Past shows include “Mulan,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Seussical Jr.,” and “Willy Wonka.”

“It’s a big job,” Solberg said. “The students meet for an hour and a half beginning in October after school every day for three months. Then it goes to four hours a day the week before the performance in February. That’s a huge commitment, so we talk about that.”

After the final show, students are usually sad to see it end. “That’s when they understand all those hours and hard work pay off.”

The “Annie Jr.” cast has 60 performers, and another 10 Cataldo students work backstage. Organizers also found a dog with prior theater experience to be Sandy.

“The kids are pretty excited about that. He’s a golden retriever, a very sweet dog.”

Another Cataldo tradition is to include the priest who leads the school’s weekly Mass. This year, the Rev. Curtis Seidel will play Franklin Roosevelt.

Corinne Webster, 11, performs as Annie. Her past appearances include playing Chip in “Beauty and the Beast,” and singing the national anthem at Gonzaga University sport events.

“I’ve never played this role,” said Corinne, who took time off from soccer for the part. “It’s a big commitment. It’s really worth it, though.”

Annika Readel, 13, plays Grace. She said students did three auditions for singing, dancing and acting. The singing tryouts are individually done before directors, while students did other parts as a group.

Another student, 13-year-old Paige Galey, portrays Miss Hannigan. She said all students who audition get a part. “It’s like a real theater experience. I’ve done community theater, and it’s the same.”

Liam Harrington, 14, has the role of Daddy Warbucks. While he let his hair grow out before the show, that will change. “I’ve been told I’ll be getting what’s called a gentleman’s haircut,” he said. “No, I’m not completely bald in the show.”

The four students plan to do high school theater. “Oh, for sure,” said Annika. “It has so much energy. It gives you a better outlook on the world, because you can experience what other people are feeling, in a metaphorical way.”

Cataldo’s drama program already had a strong track record when Solberg joined the school in 2002. A former parent with community theater ties, Kim Roberts, helped start it. When her daughter graduated, she passed the baton, Solberg said.

Solberg gets help from more than 20 parent volunteers. She also works with Brianna Anderson, as choreographer and co-director. Other community theater enthusiasts often lend support, including Kelsi Blaser, an assistant and co-choreographer this year. She’s also in Spokane Civic Theatre’s “Little Women” cast.

To prepare for “Annie Jr.,” a parent costume group has gathered about 220 individual wardrobe pieces since December, said Meg Rey-Bear, who leads the panel. Rey-Bear said the work involved looking in vintage and thrift stores to find Depression-era looks, and getting costumes loaned from Spokane Children’s Theatre and Theater Arts for Children.

“We looked for vintage hats, coats, purses from the 1930s,” Rey-Bear said. “Because they are kids, we do a lot of tailoring.”

The Cataldo group has worked two years with Ferris theater students taught by Mary Cooper, whose son attends Cataldo and is in “Annie Jr.” While Ferris students have helped other schools with theater, Cataldo’s shows are on another scale, Cooper said.

“Cataldo’s got the biggest theater program of any elementary school that I know of,” Cooper said. As a class project, Ferris students work with Cataldo parents to build sets and do other preparation work. This year, a Ferris student did the set design.

Cataldo’s tradition of producing the shows benefits students in many ways, Solberg said.

“Having that opportunity to get in front of people is so important in building their confidence,” she said. This year’s classic show helps them learn a bit of history and brings to life the well-loved story about a “spunky, red-haired girl in search of her family.”

Readel also offers a plug for audiences. “Come to Annie. It’s going to be amazing. It’s fun to see kids dancing and having fun.”

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