Nearly 1,000 showgoers were thrilled with a very special production of "Annie, Jr." staged by the CAU Community Players, a troupe of actors both with and without developmental disabilities. The musical was performed at the Rahway High School Center for Performing Arts June 29-July 1.
Formed in 2012, the CAU Community Players empowers members with disabilities to perform alongside people from the wider community and to be seen for their talents rather than their disabilities.
The troupe is sponsored by Community Access Unlimited, a statewide nonprofit providing support programs and services to individuals with disabilities as well as youth served under the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to empower them to live independently in the community. CAU provides supports in areas including housing, life-skills training, vocational skills, Money management, health maintenance, education, advocacy and recreation.
"Annie, Jr." was the CAU Community Players' seventh annual production. Each year the troupe selects a play that represents CAU's message of inclusion, acceptance and self-advocacy. With an emphasis on each individual’s value regardless of ability, the plays allow for a large cast so no one is denied an opportunity to participate.
"Annie, Jr," is based on the Little orphan Annie comic strip and adapted from the Tony Award-winning musical. With equal measures of pluck and positivity, Little Orphan Annie charms everyone's hearts despite a next-to-nothing start in 1930s New York City.
Marguerite Modero, the troupe's director, said she sees Annie's positivity and resolution in the CAU members and the entire cast.
"This was our best production ever," she said after the production. "We have gone so far and come to such a high level of performance. Our members understand stage left, stage right. They critique their performance. We are raising their level of cognitive recognition of complex things. They feel they are ready for Broadway right now, and that's great."
Meela Sashi, 10, of Elizabeth, NJ played Annie in the 100-member cast, about two thirds of which were members of CAU while the remaining cast hailed from communities both within and beyond Union County.
Andrew Barry, a CAU member, played a Hooverville resident and carpenter. He said he enjoyed being part of a cast with others from outside the agency.
"It's a lot of fun," he said. "We sometimes go out together or have a party in the cafeteria. They're really nice to me. This is my first time performing with people who are not (from) CAU."
Kim Rosato, another CAU member who played a Hooverville resident, was a little nervous before the first show but quickly overcame her anxiety. She said she really enjoys performing.
"I become myself," she said. "It makes me feel good and gives me confidence in myself."
Ryan Durkan is a non-CAU member of the troupe who has performed in every CAU Community Players production. He played multiple roles in "Annie, Jr."
"I like the moments that not many people see," he said. "At the end of each performance we close the curtains and the audience doesn't see the smiles and emotion of the performers. It's a very emotional few seconds, very heartwarming, because we all did this work together and finished it together."