Gas Lamp Players to present ‘Annie Jr.’ this weekend

Gas Lamp Players will present ‘Annie Jr.’ this weekend, the culmination of its three-week summer theater workshop. Above, in a scene from the musical, the children get some sleep before another hard day’s work.

GLEN RIDGE, NJ — The Gas Lamp Junior Players will be presenting “Annie Jr.” on Friday, July 14, at 7 p.m.; and Saturday, July 15, at 2 p.m. The curtain goes up at Ridgewood Avenue School. An admission fee will be charged.

The musical is the culmination of a three-week summer camp for 82 first- to seventh-graders from 10 local municipalities, including Glen Ridge, Bloomfield and Montclair. It is being directed by Glen Ridge resident Kristy Graves, the artistic director for Gas Lamp.

Graves spent three years playing the little red-haired character 30 years ago in touring productions of “Annie,” so she knows something about being a wide-eyed optimist and orphaned.

“These kids are stepping up,” she said at a recent rehearsal about her troupe.

She gave special praise to Julian Novoa, a sixth-grader playing the character Rooster.

“He’s really nailing it,” she said. “Warbucks is also really stepping up. That’s a really hard part for a kid.”

Alex Wolfe, a seventh-grader, plays the character of Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks.

“The girl playing Annie is one of our oldest but she’s tiny and has freckles,” Graves said. “I relate to her because I was very similar. Annie is this spunky, rough and tumble, tomboy character.”

The girl playing Annie is Alexa Owgang, a seventh-grader.

“She’s a great dancer, and poised,” Graves said. “But we’re getting rid of that poise and having her a little more rough and tumble and not the cute Shirley Temple that she really is.”

Director of the show, Kristy Graves, with Alexa Owgang, who plays the title character. Graves, who also serves as the artistic director of the Gas Lamp Players, was herself a child actress who once toured for three years in the lead role of a production of ‘Annie.”

Graves said when she played Annie, she was faced with the same predicaments and had to work hard to nail down her Annie character.

Before this year, Graves said camp was four weeks; now it is three.

“That’s why we decided on a junior show,” she said, a junior show being a slimmed down version of the original production.

The original Broadway production of Annie opened April 21, 1977, after 15 previews. It closed Jan. 2, 1983, after 2,377 performances. Music is by Charles Strouse with lyrics by Michael Charnin. The book is by Thomas Meehan. The story takes place in NYC from Dec. 11 to 25, 1933.

“We had the show on its feet after the first week,” Graves said of the upcoming Gas Lamp production. “After that, we fine-tuned it.”

The show is using two choreographers. Because of their availability, each works with the children two days a week. One choreographer is a former Rockette. The other is a former Broadway performer. Graves said there are some volunteers but most of those on the production staff are professionals with Broadway credits.

Graves said it takes a special person to work with children in a theater arts setting.

“It’s a whole different animal,” she said. “There’s a balance.”

She said while adults working together to put on a show can be more candid with one another, one has to be a little more careful with children. But at the same time, children know when they are being told the truth about their performance.

“I’ll level with them,” Graves said. “Like Annie does, I’ll put a positive spin on it — the goal of what they can be doing instead of what they are not doing.”

Graves likes working with children because she was a child actor.

“I have so many memories of what it’s like being on stage at this age,” she said. “I’ve been in their shoes.”