Inside the 56-year-old Little Theatre in Eisenhower High School, actors and actresses excitedly rehearse for the winter musical, “Annie Get Your Gun.”
The eager troupe buzzes with melodious energy and enthusiasm, parading around the theater in old-fashioned dresses, frilly petticoats and an abundance of cowboy boots. The traditional red velvet curtains usually draped over the stage have been replaced with red and white striped canvas, like that of a circus. The players dance to perfected choreography and sing flawless harmonies.
But somewhere in between the exhilaration and anticipation for the show, there is just a slight hint of grief, especially in some of the upperclassmen. This will be the last musical production in the legendary Little Theatre before the new school, currently under construction, opens for the next school year.
Students are reacting in many ways to losing their beloved theater. Some are worried that the memories they have will be lost, and others are simply sad to no longer perform in the auditorium they have come to have connections with. But this sadness does not mask the interest for the new theater or the pride they feel to be putting on the last show in the old one.
“I feel incredibly honored,” says Graeme Rife, a junior who plays Frank Butler in the show. “I have a connection to this theater. I’m sad to see it go, but I’m excited to see the new theater.”
Rife has been in two other musicals, “The Boyfriend” and “Once on This Island,” as well as the student-directed One Act Festival.
Tori Gresham, a senior who plays Annie Oakley and serves as the choreographer in the final production, adds: “It’s an amazing honor, and every time we run through the show or rehearse the numbers, I’m excited to be a part of it and I’m excited to perform it.”
This is Gresham’s fourth show in the theater. She was Ti Moune in “Once on This Island,” Natalie in “All Shook Up,” and Maisie in “The Boyfriend.” Gresham’s time on Eisenhower’s stage has generated several honors from Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, which annually recognizes the work of high school productions from throughout the state. Gresham won the 5th Avenue Award for Best Actress in a Lead Role in 2009 for her performance in “All Shook Up” and was nominated for the same award in 2011 for “Once On This Island.” Her choreography in last year’s musical, “The Boyfriend,” won a 5th Avenue Award, and her performance as Maisie led to a nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Ninth-grader Christine Munson recalls her own experiences from the theater: “It brings back a lot of memories from being in shows when I was young. In the fifth grade, I was Beaky in ‘Honk!’ Then in the seventh grade, I was a Grand Homme in ‘Once on This Island,’ and now I play Winnie Tate in this musical. I’m excited to have my first lead.”
Munson loves bonding with the cast: “We become like a second family to each other.”
The shows that the students have performed over the years have strengthened the bond to the Little Theatre, making it a bittersweet goodbye to the auditorium. On the other hand, newcomers to Eisenhower’s drama department are excited to be in their first show and in being a part of the last one in this theater.
“It’s great — I feel like I’m leaving a legacy behind,” says showbiz beginner Kenneth Jones, a junior who portrays Tommy Keehler. He says that, so far, he’s excited about “getting to serenade the crowd.”
Productions like these also build a strong foundation for hopes of getting a career in the acting world. Many of these students have dreams of going to Broadway or having other jobs involving theater.
Performing in high school musicals allows students to get experience and practice for the big leagues. Musicals also have other perks, such as making new friends and making the audience laugh.
But everyone has their own favorite part of being in a show. For Gresham, it’s enjoying the responsibility that the show can teach performers.
For Shaunaly Hutton, a senior in the dance chorus: “My favorite? Dancing. And how we become like a family. I feel safe with this cast and that’s important in a production.”
Eisenhower’s drama director, Janey Peterson, says she is sad to be leaving the theater.
“I love this theater. As old and decrepit and forlorn as it is, it has produced 56 years of shows. I love seeing kids passing through here. I love looking back at all the posters and signatures from the old productions.”
Peterson has been the drama director for eight years now, and directed stellar shows such as “Grease,” “High School Musical,” “Honk!”, and “The Boyfriend.” These shows have won or been nominated for more than 40 awards from the 5th Avenue Theater Association. Peterson herself has been nominated for Best Director twice — for “Once on This Island” in 2011 and “The Boyfriend” in 2012. Most of her productions in the past five years have also either won or been nominated for Best Choreography.
But Peterson readily credits the joint effort from everyone involved in helping produce shows that are a success. For this production, the effort includes people like Eisenhower choir director Laurel Moore, who is serving as the play’s music director, and Kristen Nagel, a production specialist with the Career and Techincal Education Department in the Yakima School District, whose duties include overseeing the show’s tech work, crew and set design. Tori Gresham has also been a large contributor as choreographer of the show.
“I haven’t done it alone,” says Peterson. “It takes an amazing crew as well as fantastic players. Laurel Moore has been indispensable, as has Kristen Nagel.”
• Hannah McFadden is a freshman at Eisenhower High School and a member of Yakima Herald-Republic’s Unleashed journalism program for high school students.