Christopher Elst jokes that he should have listened to W.C. Fields’ advice to “never work with children or animals.”
Elst is a freelance web developer from Kenosha who quit his permanent web developing job to pursue his love of acting. He's playing Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks in the Sunset Playhouse's month-long production of “Annie.”
But whenever Seamus Murray, a 12-year-old Golden Retriever playing Sandy, paws his way on stage, the audience is full of “awws” and “oohhs,” forgetting for a second what the actors are doing.
And second-grader Harper Navin, playing orphan Molly, draws even more “awws” and “so cutes,” as the audience is taken away by the youngest cast member’s ability to sweep them off their feet with her dancing and impactful one-liners.
“I just really like this play, and it’s really fun to play Molly, and I’m excited for all my big lines,” says Harper, as she twists and turns on the steps in the Playhouse lobby.
Harper began acting after she continuously came to the Playhouse with her mother, Erika Navin, who is director of education there. The Sunset Playhouse is set in the rustic city blocks of Elm Grove and home to local theater performances, as well as a School for the Arts. Harper has been in Sunset’s “Secret Garden” production, and says she wants to be either an actress or a gymnast when she grows up.
“My favorite part of the show was when I get to tell Miss Hanningan, ‘Your days are numbered!’” says Harper, wearing pigtails and a bright smile.
Illinois native Liz Norton plays Annie’s antagonist, Miss Hannigan. Graduating college with a degree in music, Norton works in classical music, opera and acting.
“As I age, I try to seek out roles more appropriate for me and that are challenging at the same time,” Norton says. “This role was the most difficult I have ever played. Miss Hannigan has such strong energy, sound and movement.”
Norton has four grown children of her own, all boys, so she spoke of the performance as “23 years of getting my mom frustration out!” Belting out a laugh, Norton still had adrenalin pumping minutes after her third performance of “Annie” earlier this month. Norton recalled being on the search for local community theaters and not being able to resist working at Sunset Playhouse.
“Sunset is unique because of the great pull from the burbs as well as from the city, so you get a nice mix of people who have some really hard core theater experience as well as individuals who might not have that,” Norton says as she looks around the lobby.
A genuine feeling of family surrounds the lobby as actors run from room to room after the show, saying “great jobs” to one another. “You know,” says Liz, “someone asked me, ‘What’s in it for you?’ and I said I didn’t know. I’m crazy, it’s crazy, it’s fun and it’s theater. It’s just such a wonderful feeling; I can’t put it into words.”
It's a feeling that “Annie” star Emma Borkowski imbues as she puts on the red wig. The 12-year-old sang with a voice that filled the auditorium and put smiles on the audience’s faces.
Sunset has two casts of young performers for “Annie,” who alternate for different shows all month. The other actress playing the lead role is Ellie Taft. (There also are two dogs playing Sandy — Seamus and Jake.)
“Sunset doesn’t do a lot of kids shows, so I was like ‘oh, Annie!’ and after I auditioned and got a call back, I was like ‘oh, Annie!’” Emma Borkowski recalled. The seventh-grader also plays violin in the Wisconsin Hills Middle School orchestra and sings in her school choir.
“My sister acted, so I started to with her at Spotlight Productions in West Bend,” Emma says, explaining how she got started with acting. “I am 12. I have a lot of time to understand what I want to do when I grow up. I definitely want to do acting in some way,” she says.
Preparing for the lead role in a nearly sold out show every night must be intimidating for a 12-year-old girl, but Emma stays loud, excited and graceful during her two-hour performance. “I sing around the house a lot, it annoys my family, but I do,” she says. She adds that she knows the show well because she avidly read the script, and she and her sister have performed roles as other orphans in “Annie” with other theater groups.
On-screen and off-screen couple Christopher Elst and Marcee Doherty also prepare for their roles in the comforts of their own homes. Doherty plays Warbucks’ assistant, Grace Farrell, in the production.
The two met while playing Charlie Brown and Lucy in the Milwaukee Bay Players’ production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” each finding passion in acting through unique paths. Elst was at the point in his life where he wanted to do something he really enjoyed, and as much fun he was having as a web developer, it was not fulfilling a part of his life.
Doherty found acting on a dare for her 30th birthday. Her friends and family dared her to do something different so she auditioned for a play, got the role and was “bit by the bug,” as the two say with a laugh.
“With performances throughout the month, our families for the holidays are the people involved here,” says Doherty, looking at Elst with a smile.
Elst agrees as he sits close to Doherty on the lobby steps. “We are both thankful that we get to be in roles we love with each other during the holiday, too,” he says. “We couldn’t ask for a better opportunity right now.”