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A hot season for June Schreiner, Arena's 16-year-old Ado Annie in 'Oklahoma!'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2010; 8:20 PM

There is, it seems, no holding June Schreiner back. During a rehearsal for "Oklahoma!" - the hit Arena Stage revival in which the 16-year-old is making such a remarkable impression - Schreiner was standing nearby when director Molly Smith had the idea to invite a few members of the band onstage to join the actors in a production number.

"She was just so excited she jumped onto the back of the fiddle player while he played," George Fulginiti-Shakar, "Oklahoma!'s" conductor, recalls with a laugh. "He's a classically trained musician! I had to explain to her that you can't do that."

Aw, shucks! Schreiner has endeared herself to her elders in the cast - and older would mean everyone else, including the adult who understudies her - with her exuberant embrace of the role of Ado Annie, the lively girl of the Plains who sings "I Cain't Say No." If an actor is called on to throw a wedding bouquet, Schreiner just might lunge for it as if this were the Olympics. If a hat falls off the head of an actress playing her romantic rival, Schreiner has been known to kick it clear into the audience.

"She really is a prodigy," observes Cody Williams, the 23-year-old who plays the object of her affection, Will Parker. Adds Smith: "To put it in a modern context, she's the It Girl. She has It."

Kids with that certain something are waiting everywhere to be discovered, but it's especially surprising when one gets a break who lives around the corner. Schreiner, born in California and raised in Reston, is a gregarious youngster who can't believe her good fortune. "It still seems unreal," she says. Her parents are naturally thrilled with her success but also understandably a bit unsure where in the theater biz - if anywhere - this all will lead.

Were enthusiasm the extent of Schreiner's capabilities, you'd chalk up the impact of her performance to youthful adrenaline. But it's perfectly apt to say that talent-wise, June is busting out all over. A junior at the Madeira School in McLean, Schreiner beat out dozens of professional actresses to earn the coveted part of Ado Annie, a linchpin of the comic romantic subplot of "Oklahoma!" And by virtue of the dewy resoluteness she confers on the character, the role is illuminated in what feels like an entirely new way.

Annie is frequently portrayed in this emblematic Rodgers and Hammerstein work by grown-up actresses coached to put the accent on, shall we say, an eagerness for sex. "What do you think she cain't say no to?" has become the implicit operative question in revivals of the musical. But Smith and her adolescent Ado Annie don't subscribe to these prurient underpinnings. Their idea is that there's far more to Annie than physical desire, that she is an embodiment of the musical's setting, an American territory churning with promise. And that what she cain't say no to is, well, everything.

In which case, Schreiner has been type-cast. "I remember in rehearsals, my face would be hurting from smiling so much," she says, sitting in a handsome conference room at the all-girls' private school after finishing lunch with a pack of her friends in the cafeteria.

Of Annie, she adds: "She's a real person. Both Molly and my understanding of her is that she's 16 and coming into her sexuality. She's discovering life. Her body has just started yelling at her, but Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't write it for her to be a slut. She's innocent, and she's written that way."

Schreiner, too, projects a vivacity, the kind stage directors say yes to. "If she were a boy, I'd say she was Peter Pan," says Andy Regiec, who's directed her in "The Crucible" and "Urinetown" for the Reston Community Players. "Even at the age of 9, she hung out with the people who were really into theater. She was always front and center asking, 'Why are you doing that?' She wanted to learn what was going on."

Anita Maynard-Losh, "Oklahoma!'s" assistant director, noticed a special quality after Schreiner enrolled in Arena's summer musical-theater academy. "It makes you watch everything she does; she's just that magnetic. She'd be interesting flossing her teeth."

So her name inevitably surfaced after Smith started mulling the idea of skewing young with the cast. "When she auditioned, she was fresh and open and sophisticated in her reading. She's very bright," says Smith, whose novel choices included a black actress, Eleasha Gamble, and a Latino actor, Nicholas Rodriguez, as the show's romantic leads, Laurey and Curley.

"But I had a couple of concerns," she adds. "My question was, this is a seven-or-eight-show week. It's all about your constitution, how strong you are physically. Would she be able to go to school, come to rehearsal, perform on an evening before 600 people and be able to maintain all this for weeks?"

That is a tall order for anyone, let alone a kid whose experience was extensive but confined to less intense arenas: parts in community theater, workshops, voice lessons and summers at Arena. Her lineage does suggest a predisposition to performing. Her mother, Dana Andersen Schreiner, was a film and television actress in California, and once upon a time, father Bill directed shows for the well-known Los Angeles comedy troupe, the Groundlings. Still, Ado Annie is one of the musical's most demanding roles, and June Schreiner was going to have to absorb a lot of grown-up lessons in a hurry.

"The pressures on her schedule are big, and so are the forces of what she has to get accomplished in both universes," her father, now an executive who oversees social media at an investment firm, says of the balancing of school and theater. "So yeah, there's a little bit of anxiety, if something were to go wrong in either situation. What this has translated to is that I've been praying that we will have no snow."

His daughter, though, hasn't flagged. "I'm sure they had doubts about me being able to hold myself onstage with people who'd been doing this all their lives," Schreiner says of the cast and creative team. She shrugs at the suggestion any of this might have been a burden. One of the show's seasoned pros, E. Faye Butler - the production's Aunt Eller - paid her the ultimate compliment, proclaiming, "You are Ado Annie." After that, Schreiner says, she was able to take everything in stride.

"At a talk-back, someone asked Cody, 'Is it awkward for you to kiss a 16-year -old?' " Schreiner recalls. "I'm sure it was weird, at first. At the same time, it's for art - and it's not illegal!"

Life for Schreiner these days is highly regimented: school from 8 in the morning until 3:30 p.m., some time lingering on campus to study, then off to Arena in Southwest Washington until 10:45 p.m. or so, and then home. (She can't eat after 4 p.m. on performance days, she says, because she wears a tight corset for Annie and it impedes digestion.) Homework is finished backstage. She often does her math, for instance, during intermission, and English has become a collaborative effort: "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" turned out to be especially enjoyable because one of her co-stars knew it well.

"Nehal helps," she says, referring to Nehal Joshi, who plays the Persian peddler Ali Hakim. "I would run offstage and have these intense discussions with him about it."

Schreiner says her parents never pushed her into acting, although her father directed her last summer in a local production of "Little Women." "She surprised me," Bill Schreiner says. "I went, wow, she is hungry to work. She is hungry to get at the truth of who the character is; she is hungry to build her skills."

She's also eager to see what happens next. "Natalie Portman is my hero - she's so smart," Schreiner says, pointing out that Portman went to Harvard. She's got her eye on the Ivy League, too. But first, there's a lot of singing and lassoing and smooching to be conducted, all on a professional level, of course. And then on Dec. 30, the toughest assignment of all: "Oklahoma!" goes dark, and a 16-year-old has her evenings free again.

What, you wonder, is she going to do with all that energy? Maybe, even June Schreiner has her limits. "I think," she says, "I need to take a little break."

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