Students at Helen Keller Middle School returned to the stage for the first time in two years with a spirited production of the musical “Annie Jr.” on March 3 and 4.

“I thought it was amazing,” said Chris Ferrari, whose daughter Lucia Ferrari played Grace Farrell in the show. “These kids did an amazing job and I’m emotional over it. My daughter told us about the show as she was going through it, but I didn’t plan on it being anything like this. It exceeded my expectations,” Ferrari said.

Helen Keller Middle School students perform the song “NYC” from the musical “Annie Jr.”

Music director Eli Newsom said the play was a celebratory welcome back and included all talent levels. “For a lot of them, it was their first time under lights, wearing a costume, and more so it was a real representation of what we do at higher levels,” Newsom said.

Due to strict Covid regulations in the beginning of the year, students and faculty were required to mask and social distance in previous rehearsals.

Annie meets the servants at Warbuck’s home.

“The students rehearsed for the show during the spread of the Omicron variant, which made everyone involved in the production nervous,” said the show’s director Christy McIntosh-Newsom. “Every day we would get emails from parents about their children in quarantine. Just trying to work around those situations–I think we were really lucky since it didn’t really spread throughout the cast.”

McIntosh-Newsom did everything she could to rehearse as safely as possible under those difficult conditions. “We were very careful and mindful of social distancing, so the kids weren’t touching. It was like, ‘If things hopefully get better closer to the show, then you’ll hold hands, but for now you’re not,'” she said.

Despite these challenges, students in the cast said that McIntosh-Newsom was still able to improve their performances by giving them helpful direction for their roles.

“Christy is a wonderful coach,” said student Hayden Goldstein, who played Annie for the Thursday night performance. “The first day, we did character work and Christy had us develop our character. It really made me feel more in Annie’s shoes.”

While many students worked onstage, there were also other positions being covered by other students including production roles such as lighting.

HKMS production of “Annie Jr.”

“We just found [the lighting board] and it had a little tab that said ‘2015,’” said student and lighting board operator Sebastian Cano-Cowles. “But it wasn’t super complicated since I have an odd interest in flight, and it looked a lot like flight levels to me.”

For Principal Steven Clapp, seeing students collaborating as a unified group and working together on both sides of the curtain to make a full-scale production like “Annie Jr.” is something to be celebrated.

“The students involved on stage and behind the scenes are so invested and have been rehearsing three days a week since early November,” said Clapp. “Students from all three grades from different social groups and levels of ability all coming together to make something special will be a celebration of these students and their resilience, and with the timing of masks being optional it couldn’t be better.”

Gov. Ned Lamont had announced in early February that he would be ending the statewide mask requirement effective Feb. 28, but also left specific policies up to the local school districts. With the show dates scheduled soon after the mask mandate was lifted at Helen Keller, this left very little time to implement any last-minute changes added to the show or for the cast to adapt their performances.

Annie (Grace Olsen) with Oliver Warbucks (Xander Ciminiello)

“Acting with a mask is really challenging,” said McIntosh-Newsom. “We didn’t know what was going to happen with the masks, so we ordered clear masks just in case, but now, for kids who choose to wear the mask, we’ll still be able to see their faces.

“We kept reminding the kids that the audience will see their faces, so be sure to think about this, but there might be a learning curve in that department too,” said McIntosh-Newsom.

However, despite these potentially disruptive changes, students were able to give outstanding performances and received standing ovations from an appreciative audience at the end of the show.

“I definitely felt the energy in the room,” said Goldstein. “Everyone was just so happy, and I loved it so much. It was a great experience.”

A digital version of the program can be accessed at this link:

Photos by Sophie Camizzi

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