Corsicana High School puts on a heartwarming rendition of Annie Jr. with a very special and amazing cast.

By John F. Kaiser III – Navarro County Gazette

As soon as you stepped into the Corsicana High School you knew you were in for something special. A series of uniquely decorated wooden penguins lined the hallway to the school’s cafeteria where a merchandise table sold “Don’t Stop Believing” shirts next to photo-op area for pictures.

At 7:00 p.m., the CHS theatre teacher, and the man behind bringing the Penguin Project not to just Corsicana, but to Texas, Cranston Dodds stepped out onto the stage to introduce the audience to the show.

For those unfamiliar with the Penguin Project, it is described as “a magical and touching celebration of the human spirit which unfolds at numerous theaters across the country.” A group of special needs children paired with mentors take to the stage to perform modified versions of well-known Broadway musicals; in this case Annie Jr. 

These productions are filled by young artists with developmental disabilities including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities visual impairment, hearing impairment, and other neurological disorders. The actors are joined on stage by a dedicated group of “peer mentors” – children the same age without disabilities who have volunteered to work side-by-side with them from rehearsals through the final performance.

The Penguin Project was founded by Dr. Andrew Morgan, “Dr. Andy”, a Professor Emeritus of Clinical Pediatrics and the former Head of the Division of Child Development at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria. Dr. Morgan has been the primary medical specialist in central Illinois involved in the diagnosis and treatment of children with disabilities for over 35 years. Dr. Andy was at both performances and presented the Corsicana Independent School District with a plaque of appreciation.

From the moment the production began, my eyes welled up. Being in a musical is no easy task, and here these kids were giving it their all. The joy they were experiencing was palpable and infectious. Hannah Bates, as the titular star Annie, took to the stage like she owned it, and she did. While the sun will come out tomorrow, the light, talent, and life of Bates and the cast was shining bright on this stage.

Before the opening number was over, my perspective shifted. I was no longer watching youths with developmental disabilities, but a cast of young actors performing their roles, hitting their marks, and thoroughly entertaining a large and exited crowd, myself included. I could not help but to hum along, tapping my toes when the orphans Bella Webster (Molly), Leslie Carrilo (July), Lyndsie Jonte (Pepper), Astrid Owen (Tessie), Abigahil Monge Ramos (Orphan), and Hannah Bates (Annie) performed “It’s the Hard Knock Life” alongside their peer-mentors Hallie Bates (Molly), Genesis Figueroa (July), Eve Dixon (Pepper), Meagan Jonte (Tessie), Feliciti Morris (Orphan), and Hannah Carlisle (Annie).

Olivia Lassetter was great, selling the role as the two-faced mean orphanage directress Miss Hannigan alongside peer-mentor Erin Jones, as was Josh Olvera and peer-mentor Christian Cuellar as her scheming hoodlum brother Rooster Hannigan, and Shelby Ferguson and peer-mentor Valeria Carrillo as Lilly St. Regis.

Calvin McClellan and peer-mentor Cayden Blackwell worked in perfect unison as Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks. McClelland signed and emoted as Warbucks while Blackwell delivered the spoken/sung lines, together bringing the iconic character to life.

Truly the entire cast and crew put together an endearing and entertaining production of Annie Jr. My hat is off to Deven Day/Hagan Webster as Bundles McCloskey/Dogcatcher, Sean Kays/Ataria Mason as Apple Seller, Joshua Oberdick as Officer Ward, Clara Simmons/Bailey Cook as Grace Farrell, Christian McNutt as Drake the Butler, Clark Hooper as Mr. Greer the House Supervisor/NYC Naughty Boy, Lesma Arias as Mrs. Pugh the Cook/NYC, Ethan Hernandez as Cecil/NYC/Louis Howe, Letty Solis as Annette/NYC Acrobat, Joshua Miranda as House Staff/NYC Newspaper boy, Bailey Cook as NYC Star-To-Be, Charles Meeks/Tony Gonzalez as Burt Heely/F.D. Roosevelt, and Alyssa Day as Talent/Mentor Standby. The standing ovation given was well-earned.

When the cast came downstage and performed their bows, and everyone in attendance stood and applauded, the show was not over. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” started playing, everyone on stage went into a dance number, and my already full heart overflowed and the waterworks began again. Cran and crew did an outstanding job bringing such a wonderful project to the CISD. The amount of work that went into pulling this off was substantial and all those involved deserve mentions as well. If you see any of the following people out and about be sure to take a moment and thank them for their involvement:

Director – Cranston Dodds, Penguin Project Mentor Co-Coordinators – Tiffany Warren, Caren Brown-Smith, Music & Vocal Director – Alexandra Martinez, Asst. Director & Costume Design – Debbie Taylor, Costumes – Camryn Glass, Caroline Mousner, Choreographers – Jessica Pfohl, Rachel Handley, Set & Lighting Design – Hailey Herrin, Sound Engineer – Adam Walthall, Apprentice Mentor Coordinator – Felicity Frost, Penguin Project Production Manager – Frances Dodds, Marketing – Susan Johnson, Delaney Johnson, Keenya Brown.

Stage Manager – Anna Hollingsworth, Asst. Stage Manager – Corey Smith, Light Board Operator – Brady Grantham, Sound Board Operator – Jordan Carter, Backstage Wranglers – Tiffany Warren, Felicity Frost, Jonathan Towles, Caren Brown-Smith, Backstage Crew – Shane Hooper, Todd Jones, Diana Rivero, Marco Solis, Mauricio Solis, Blaze Williams, Dressers – Bettsy Grimaldo, Madison O’Sullivan, Sophie Putman, Paizlee Ragan, Annette Rodriguez, Andrea Rrig, Abigail Walthrall, Kaitlyn Warren, Set Construction – CHS Tech Theatre Classes, Hailey Herrin, Todd Jones, and Special Programs Aides and Interpreters – Leah Reed, Meara Gonzalez, Tish Huddleston.

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