Panu yang, left, as molly the orphan, with megan fischer, center, as Annie and Jada mone Stumon who plays another orphan. the dog, Udo, is a stand in for the photo and the two dogs in the show are wyatt and tulip.
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
Panu Yang, an 11 year-old 5th grader at Concordia Creative Learning Academy, is appearing in the coveted role of Molly the Orphan in the Children’s Theater Company production of Annie, now running through June.
Based on the 1920-1930s comic “Little Orphan Annie,” Annie, the musical, opened on Broadway in 1977. Set in New York City in the midst of the Great Depression, the story about the young orphan who finds a father in the billionaire Oliver Warbucks. The production is revived in theaters annually for its message of hope and optimism and for its list of classic songs, such as “Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow.”
Molly is the youngest girl in the orphanage. At age six, her dialogue is spirited and humorous.
“This character is more like me, because I am a goofy person a lot and say things in funny ways,” said Panu. “She (Molly) is the youngest orphan, and the smallest. The others don’t like Miss Hannigan (the disagreeable orphanage matron), but Molly loves her.
Panu said that Molly has a lot of personality and because of this she gets a lot of lines. Molly likes to act like Miss Hannigan when she is not around and bosses everyone around until the others put her into the laundry basket.
The only child of Pam Xiong and Peter Yang, Panu said she got the acting bug even before attending Concordia Creative Learning Academy, where she had lead roles in two holiday plays and hosted many student award ceremonies. She also participated in a reading of China Doll for Mu Performing Arts’ New Eyes Festival.
She studied Chinese Ballet with CAAM Chinese Dance Theater and hip hop with Zenon Dance Company. She is also studying traditional dance with Dao Lan Dance School, which won first place in Traditional Dance at the 2011 Minnesota Hmong New Year.
Panu was cast for the role after being discovered at an open casting call of 500 girls at the Mall of America last October. Seven of the ten youth actors won parts, including the role of Annie by two experienced actresses, Megan Fischer and Shawnee Elliott.
Panu said being cast at MOA was “really crazy” with so many girls all excited and wanting to be picked. It was exciting but also nerve-racking to learn the songs and listen for the beat in the noisy mall while performing with a group of girls that had literally just been put together.
“I was excited and scared at the same time,” said Panu, who said she nearly missed her performance when she did a little shopping to calm her nerves and was pleased to get the second call back.
According to CTC, it was showing raw talent and the ability to sing on key and their overall stage presence while performing in front of the large MOA crowd. It gave CTC the confidence they needed to pick girls who would work well within the technical pressure of a CTC production.
Peter Rothstein, artistic director for Theater Latté Da, was selected to direct Annie, which is the single most-requested production among CTC patrons. He said it was apparent that Panu had talent right from the beginning.
“In the audition process, we were stunned to see this big, bright singing voice come out of this little body,” said Rothstein.
Its one thing to exhibit raw talent and quite another to make it work within the complex and challenging CTC production process with dozens of people to work with on many levels. However, Rothstein said Panu is able to work well with her adult peers.
“When we moved onto the scenes, Panu demonstrated remarkable instincts for such a young actress,” said Rothstein.
Panu said Rothstein emphasizes professionalism and to set high expectations and to stay focused. “He says to try to be a serious actress,” she added.
The role of Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks is played by Lee Mark Nelson, a local actor and graduate of The Juilliard School.
The role of Grace Farrell will by played by Teri Parker-Brown, who was in the 2006 CTC production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
The role of Miss Hannigan will be played by Angela Timberman. Autumn Ness will play Lily St. Regis, and Reed Sigmund will play Rooster. Company members Gerald Drake and Dean Holt will play a myriad of comic roles, and other orphans will be played by Anna Moskowitz; Regan Duffy, and Brandon Brooks.
The rehearsal process is demanding and it takes more than hard work to stay lucid with the cast and crew. The CTC staff work to keep the cast and crew, young and old, working together as a team.
“Not a day goes by when Panu does not delight everyone in the rehearsal room,” said Rothstein.
Panu said Rothstein keeps the actors mindful of trying to be funny and sad when singing and their lines in line with the range of emotions in the story. It was during the rehearsal period that she really began to understand how relate to Molly, and why she could had nightmares along with her spirited dreams.
“She is the tiniest and has a big personality,” she said.
Panu said Concordia let’s her “stretch her legs” and do the things she wants to do with confidence she is getting a great education at one of the states’ top schools. She began acting in school plays at the urging of her music teacher and was pleased to pass the audition in her first attempt.
She credits her learning several dance styles with giving her the flexibility and poise and said it helps with her acting.
Panu’s mother, Pam Xiong, said she loves the Molly character. It allows her daughter to be in several scenes and she has a lot of punch lines to develop her comedic timing.
“It certainly is one of the larger child roles next to Annie,” said Xiong.
She is proud of her daughter and reminds her that she is extremely talented, and to be thankful to make it so far to be selected and to work hard in this CTC role.
Xiong said the acting and modeling jobs through talent scouting agencies such as Pro Scout does take a lot of time, but that it hasn’t interfered with Panu’s studies. She will miss some classes for the CTC production but they are able to prepare for that in advance with teachers.
She said the rehearsals and pre-production could change on a moment’s notice with stage management scheduling the day in five-minute increments. Once the production started on stage, however, she said the schedule is set and they won’t expect too many last minute calls.
Panu is also a singer and it was her voice coach at Concordia that saw her courage to perform and encouraged her to audition for theater.
It all works together as Panu said the hardest part of a musical is that she must dance and act while singing at the same time. The process has her gasping for air at times and she said it takes a lot of energy.
“I get more energy with the audience,” she added. “I get more excited.”
Panu keeps busy between rehearsals with dance classes and plans to attend dance camps this summer.
Annie is running through June 12, 2011 at Children’s Theatre Company, located at 2400 Third Avenue S., Minneapolis. Tickets range from $22–$46 and are available by calling 612-874-0400 or online at www.childrenstheatre.org.