Three Rivers High School’s ‘Annie’ to open Friday

“It’s A Hard Knock Life” performed by orphans (left to right) Duffy (Lucy Olson), Tessie (Alexis Holtz), Annie (Arwen Burkey), and Pepper (Maggie Gose). (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

Three Rivers High School students are presenting their spring musical “Annie” for two weekends running from March 17 through March 26. Tickets are $10 for adults and seniors, $5 for students, and are available for purchase online.

Winner of seven Tony awards, including Best Musical, the show follows the adventures of plucky and positive orphan Annie, who charms everyone’s hearts despite growing up in an orphanage ran by the bitter Miss Hannigan in 1930s New York City. With the help of the other girls in the orphanage, Annie escapes to the city, befriends President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and ultimately finds a new home and family with billionaire Oliver Warbucks.

“It’s A Hard Knock Life” performed by orphans (left to right) Duffy (Lucy Olson), Annie (Arwen Burkey), Pepper (Maggie Gose), July (Natalie Moore), Tessie (Alexis Holt) and Kate (Shaley Schnepp). (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

“Annie” is show director Jennie Miller’s fourth production at Three Rivers High School. She says directing a show is much like an artist making a stained glass window, and that each of her students represents a different beautiful piece of glass. “As the director,” Miller said, “I’m the glue that holds all the pieces together, but you don’t see me when the lights shine. My job is to allow the students to shine.”

And shine they do. Arwen Burkey, a sophomore, plays the title role in the show and is no stranger to the stage having been in 12 other productions. Burkey says she loves being in “Annie,” her cast family, and the Broadway style of the musical numbers. “The hardest thing has been putting it all together,” Burkey said. “Individually things are great. I can do the dances, and I can do the songs, but putting it all together and doing it all at once is hard.”

Annie (Arwen Burkey) and Sandy (TRHS comfort dog Tanner) as she performs “Tomorrow.” (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

By Burkey’s side for a portion of the musical is Tanner, the TRHS comfort dog, in his debut stage performance as Annie’s companion, Sandy. Tanner’s handler is TRHS principal Carrie Balk, who gave permission for Miller to cast him in the show. On performing with an animal Burkey said, “It’s a little difficult because he’s really hyper and he knows where the treats are, so he has been trying to get them the entire time.” At the time of publication, Burkey and Tanner have rehearsed together only three times, but plan to spend the remainder of rehearsals before opening night, solidifying their onstage relationship. 

Senior Gwen Lyczynski dominates the role of Miss Hannigan, the cruel authoritarian head of the orphanage who loves her job, but hates children — especially Annie. Lyczynski has acted in 18 other shows, performing since third grade. She has adopted a raspy, New York City-style accent for the performance, something she says she came up with on her own. “I heard Andrew, who plays Rooster, doing it, and I thought, ‘oh my gosh, I have to do that,’” she said. “I definitely had to practice it with a few of my lines, but once I got it it definitely gets me more into the character.”

Miss Hannigan (Gwen Lyczynski) belts out her signature song “Little Girls” during dress rehearsals. (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

When reflecting on what she is most proud of with her fellow cast members, Lyczynski said, “I’m proud of the fact that we came back from essentially having nothing after ‘Mamma Mia!’ got cancelled, and our theater program literally had nothing. I feel like we wouldn’t have anything unless all the backstage people and all of us put everything into what we’re doing now.” She says what she has loved most about playing villain Hannigan has been how different she is from characters Lyczynski has played in the past. “Last year I was the lead in ‘Emma: A Pop Musical.’ Such a different character. Complete opposite.”

Not all students in the production are as seasoned as Burkey and Lyczynski, though, with foreign exchange student Daniela Artank from Switzerland making her debut stage performance as Mrs. Pugh, Star-To-Be, Connie Boylan, and Hooverville-ian. Though being on stage is a new experience for her, Artank was encouraged to audition due to her love of musicals, and is a self-proclaimed “theater kid.” She said Switzerland does not share the same affinity for musical theater as the United States, but her favorite musicals are “Hairspray,” “The Greatest Showman,” and, of course, “Annie.” Artank said playing the role of Star-To-Be, who delivers a rousing solo in the song “N.Y.C.,” is new for her because she’s never sang in front of an audience. “Singing a solo for me is something crazy.”

Miss Hannigan (Gwen Lyczynski) teased by orphans Kate (Shaley Schnepp), Duffy (Lucy Olson), July (Natalie Moore), and Tessie (Alexis Holtz). (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

Freshman Natalie Moore plays orphan July, and says she is most proud of her cast mates for catching on so quickly with singing and dancing. Senior Mariah Powell, who plays Lily St. Regis and Sophie, agrees, as she taught herself how to tap dance just for her role. Sophomore Cadence Hightree is performing the roles of Cecile and Bonnie Boylan. “I think I’m really proud of myself for coming out of my shell, I have a lot more lines and I’m excited about that,” she said. Hightree has performed in two other shows in the past, and said what she will miss the most about “Annie” are the seniors and the experience of rehearsing with everyone.

Rounding out a predominantly female cast are male leads Andrew Culver and Joshua Moore. Culver, a sophomore, plays the roles of Rooster, Mr. Bundles, and a Hooverville-ian. When reflecting on his proudest moments of the show he said, “It’s cool because I’ve been in so many shows throughout my life and I feel like this is the best time, like my prime. I’m not going to do this after high school and this is my 11th show. I’ve done Three Rivers Community Players, Three Rivers Middle School shows, and high school shows.” 

Moore is a senior and plays Oliver Warbucks. He loves the musical numbers he gets to perform in the role and is most proud of his cast’s ability to pull the show together despite cancelled rehearsals and snow days. “This is my last musical,” he said. “I’m going to miss it.”

Director of Bands Cheryl Thomas leads pit orchestra in opening overture of “Annie” during dress rehearsals leading up to opening night. (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

There are 40 students involved in “Annie” onstage, backstage, working with sound and lights, and in the pit orchestra. Cheryl Thomas, director of bands at Three Rivers High School, leads the music section which includes a few Western Michigan University students, Three Rivers Assistant Director of Bands Mai Lan Vo on trombone, and alumni Mark Montcalm on piano. Other alumni involved in “Annie” are Andrew Lough (’17) working on set design, and Emily Lough (’20) as choreographer.

Tickets are on sale now for “Annie” and Miller along with the cast and crew are elated to share their hard work with the community. Evening show times are March 17, 18, 24, and 25 at 7 p.m., with matinees on March 19 and 26 at 2 p.m. Tickets are available online or at the door, cash or card only. 

Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice.