‘Music, movement and story’: ‘Annie’ heads into final performance’
‘Annie’ inspires hope, choked by smoke
Abby Rose Wagner, the star of the Sierra School of Performing Art’s “Annie” show, is — fittingly — an optimist herself.
“When you have a show like ‘Annie,’ that’s been around for so long, you realize how important it is to keep spreading the messages that musicals give us, because they have good messages,” Wagner said. “Like Annie, it’s the good message that ‘the sun will come out tomorrow.'”
Saturday, Aug. 28, is set to be the final performance of “Annie” at Bartley Ranch Regional Park.
The Sierra School of Performing Arts, a 16-year-old volunteer theater company begun by North Lake Tahoe region parents, chose this particular musical pre-pandemic. They did not expect Annie’s timeless story to be so relevant — specifically the political divide that underpins the musical.
“We chose this show in December 2019,” co-director Janet Lazarus said. “As we headed into the pandemic and people lost their jobs and their houses, it became even more poignant — it’s about rich versus poor, it’s about optimism and it’s about grit.”
COVID-19 and its effect on the performing arts, in schools and the professional realm has been undeniable, Lazarus said, but it is obviously not the only risk to the cast’s respiratory health. The cast includes 40 local performers, ages 9 to 68 year old.
Lazarus said one show was canceled last week because of the air quality in Reno, and one show concluded after the first act because the smoke became too hazardous.
“Everyone was so excited and grateful that we were going to press on when we made the decision in February of this year, because we have an outdoor venue and we thought it would be safer,” Lazarus explained. “Ironically, it didn’t work because of the smoke.”
Lazarus said not unlike the rest of the world, cast members are not always on the same page as to whether or not “the show should go on.”
“Our actors are feeling very trepidatious in even a low level of smoke,” Lazarus said. “Most of the actors are on board, but some are (feeling the smoke’s effects) and that really affects cast morale.”
Wagner’s passion for all artistic endeavors, including playing the tuba and trombone in Alder Creek Middle School’s band, is persistent, making the young actress unafraid to face reality and problem solve through performance.
“The last year and a half has been awful, and it’s not great,” Wagner said. “People just really need some art in their lives.”
Wagner said Alder Creek Middle School returned to in-person learning in March. Although the musical was decided over a year before, Lazarus said due to COVID-related concerns, rehearsals began May 1.
“Alder Creek got out in late June, so for a while there it was four nights a week of rehearsals until 9:30 p.m, then coming home and going to school the next day,” said Diane Wagner, Abby’s mother.
Diane Wagner said she has been impressed by the cast and crew’s professionalism, despite the constant changes of scene and operating parameters that occur in real life.
“They take the health of all the actors and the kids seriously,” Diane Wagner said.
Her daughter was 11 when she got the part, but turned 12 before the show’s debut.
“She pretty much got the vaccine for her birthday,” Diane Wagner said.
Diane Wagner said the cast remained masked during rehearsals until August, when it began practicing in an outdoor location, the regional park.
Having her daughter’s creative outlet cut off in March 2020 was challenging, but not insurmountable.
“For people that this is not just their hobby but their career, this has been devastating,” Diane Wagner said. “It’s been fantastic the way people have adapted to try and fill a huge void.”
Diane Wagner said Abby posted videos of her singing for three months through the Boys & Girls Club of North Lake Tahoe.
“The Boys & Girls Club would post these videos to share and you could share them with your family, then she would get comments,” Diane Wagner said, acknowledging that nothing feels close to the sensation created by live shows. “For people who are in performance, there’s no comparison to getting that energy from the crowd. I think this experience with ‘Annie’ has been incredible because the audience is starved for theater.”
Diane Wagner said described the show’s audiences as “fabulous.”
Abby said she hopes the musical’s attendees leave her theater feeling joy and hope. The actress said in these trying times, attendance alone speaks volumes to the importance of art’s role in our community.
“There’s something about being on stage in front of hundreds of people that paid their own money to see you that makes you feel very good about yourself and it motivates you to try harder,” she added.
Lazarus said she has been grateful to work alongside talented and committed professionals throughout the project, regardless of what the smoke or pandemic do to this weekend’s performances.
“Regardless of the outcome, everybody feels like they learned so much. They met knew people and developed new friends — celebrated their love of music, movement and story,” Lazarus said. “It’s that one element of the final performance that is compromised.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer for the Sierra Sun and The Union, a sister publication of the Sun
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