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Youngsters come out to star in the JCC’s ‘Annie’
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Youngsters come out to star in the JCC’s ‘Annie’

Stars of the JCC’s production of Annie, Rachel Weisenthal and Kyle McGee, standing, rehearse with the cast, directed by Beth Kasper, right, and Leslie Glass, second from right.
Stars of the JCC’s production of Annie, Rachel Weisenthal and Kyle McGee, standing, rehearse with the cast, directed by Beth Kasper, right, and Leslie Glass, second from right.

When the number of people signing up for your program doubles from one year to the next, chances are you’re on to a good thing. That is how Beth Kasper and Leslie Glass are feeling about the kids’ theater program they are running at the JCC of Central New Jersey.

Last year, when they were preparing to stage School of Rock, 25 kids auditioned for the first go-around. This year, for their production of Annie, they have 47 cast members. Everyone who auditioned and wanted to stay is in the show.

The show — the 1977 Tony Award-winning musical based on “Little Orphan Annie,” the comic strip about the Depression-era waif and her dog — opens on next week, with performances on Wednesday and Thursday, March 24 and 25.

Last year, the only costumes the troupe needed were jeans and T-shirts. The School of Rock production — staged at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield — was kept very simple.

This year things are more elaborate, thanks to a dad who produces removable wall displays and some lighting equipment owned by the directors. The Scotch Plains JCC doesn’t have a stage of its own, but has been given the use of the Terrill Middle School auditorium.

Rehearsals began in December. Since then the players and backstage crew have been meeting twice a week, on Tuesdays and Sundays. The participants, mostly girls with a sprinkling of brave boys, are in second to eighth grade. Rachel Weisenthal, who plays Annie, and Kyle McGee, who plays Daddy Warbucks, are both 11-year-old fifth-graders. Eight-year-old Kelly Zimmerman is portraying Sandy, the dog.

Mike Goldstein, the JCC’s program director and camp codirector, came up with the idea of a theater program in the fall of 2008. He brought in Glass, who had been teaching preschoolers at the JCC, and Kasper, who taught Mommy and Me classes there.

Both women have had a long love affair with the musical theater. Glass started at 13 with productions at the JCC of Greater Monmouth County in Deal. She went on to do Plays in the Park in Edison, and to tour with the Children’s Theatre Company.

Kasper did theater in college, handling many different aspects of production and taught music for 10 years. She said she was itching to get back to theater.

They are both mothers; Glass has a two-year-old and five-year-old, and Kasper has three. Her seven-year-old is too young to take part, but her 10-year-old and 12-year-old are in the Annie cast.

Working with children, both women agree, requires taking a different approach than with adults — more patience and a lot of gentle encouragement.

“There were a few kids who wanted particular roles and when they weren’t chosen for them, they didn’t come back,” Glass said. “But most were just happy to be in a show.”

Kasper said, “And we have a couple of kids who you know are going to be stars one day.”

Rachel was one of their great discoveries. She had never done anything like this before. Asked how she feels about the show, she replied with a simple “It’s fun.” But she has a bell-clear voice and a down-to-earth quality that the directors said have made her a joy to work with.

Finding a Daddy Warbucks proved a bit tougher. He had to be someone with enough presence to come across as much older. “We even considered having an adult play that one role,” Glass said. But then someone told them about a boy who had done quite a bit of acting already — and introduced them to Kyle. Asked if he was nervous about performing, he shook his head with a big smile. “I’m just excited,” he said.

Next year, Kasper said, they want to take the program even further, with more adults involved, and fancy equipment — but for now they are focused on next week, eager to get on with the show. And you can bet your bottom dollar on that.

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