Variety celebrates 80 years with ‘Annie’
By: Betsy Zatkulak
Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis is celebrating its 80th anniversary with a sparkling performance of “Annie” presented by Variety Children’s Theatre (VCT), one of Variety’s most notable programs.
“We chose ‘Annie’ because it’s about an orphan, harking back to Variety’s beginnings,” said Jan Albus, Variety’s CEO and executive producer. “The first Variety child was an orphan left in a theatre 80 years ago, in the late 1920s. Annie is an orphan struggling to survive in the Great Depression. It’s the perfect show for us.”
Variety has helped thousands of St. Louis kids with disabilities say, “I can” by providing equipment and educational, recreational and therapeutic programs, like VCT.
VCT also has gained national recognition, having won an Art Works grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to support the production of “Annie.”
“We’re just thrilled. This is the first national recognition of the program – a program which is so unique,” Albus said. “Many theatre programs include a child living with a disability on stage in some way, but our program is the only one we know of that includes this many on stage working alongside other professional theatre kids.”
Twenty Variety Kids will perform, and 12 Variety Teens will be backstage shadowing professionals – all with disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy and spina bifida to Down syndrome and autism.
Lily Manning, of Ballwin, a talented 11-year-old who has autism and cerebral palsy, is ready to take the stage in her role as the orphan, Shelley. She and another actor are the first children with disabilities to win lead roles in a VCT production.
“Lily was adopted from Taiwan,” said Vici Manning, who with her husband adopted Lily when she was 11 months old. “Our story kind of fits the theme of ‘Annie’ and the non-traditional family.”
Like Annie, Lily has quite a voice.
“Lily has always been a singer; she just needed a stage,” Albus said. “Lily’s a kid who doesn’t let her developmental delays hold her back.”
Working side-by-side with children with disabilities does wonders for all kids in the cast.
Nine-year-old Chesterfield resident Kaylee Ryan has a lead orphan role as Molly, the youngest orphan. She once was shy and sometimes struggled with confidence – that is, until after her first audition she was cast as a guppy in the Muny’s “The Little Mermaid.” There, she fell in love with all things theatre, including making new friends.
“You get to be a person you’ve never been before, and you really get to be alive. It’s a fun place to be,” she said. “I think people should come see ‘Annie’ because not only is it a great show, but it includes kids with disabilities … and they may seem like they are having trouble walking and stuff, but when you look at them, they are so alive!”
Her mother, Linda Ryan, agrees.
“It’s the trifecta,” she said. “It’s ‘Annie.’ It’s kid-friendly, and it’s by an organization that’s helping children. It’s in the perfect performance space where there isn’t a bad seat in the house.”
VCT’s production of “Annie,” directed by Tony-nominated Director Lara Teeter, will feature five shows running Oct. 26-28 at the. Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus. For tickets, call (314) 516-4949, or visit touhill.org.
For more information on Variety, visit varietystl.org.