It was a year-and-a-half ago that Kirkwood's Sarah Beth grabbed hold of a magic lamp and gave it a good, hard rub.
Out from the lamp jumped several doers of good deeds from the Make-A-Wish-Foundation of Metro St. Louis. Sarah Beth, diagnosed with leukemia, would be granted a single wish. She asked to be cast in the starring role of her favorite musical, "Annie."
Last weekend Sarah Beth, 8, experienced the promise of a dream fulfilled. Co-produced by Make-A-Wish and the Kirkwood Parks and Recreation Department, "Annie, Jr." played to rave reviews following its Friday and Saturday night performances at the Kirkwood Lions Amphitheater.
Sarah Beth has always loved the Annie character, and has attended numerous productions of the musical.
"You would have no idea that Sarah Beth was not Annie. There was never a moment's doubt. It was easy to get caught up in the story and forget there was a performer who was playing that role," said Wendy Schneider, community relations coordinator for the local Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Sarah Beth spoke by phone from the waiting room at St. John's Mercy Medical Center, where she travels each week with her mother for chemotherapy treatments. Chemotherapy has been part of her weekly routine for two years. Her mother, Julia, reports that Sarah Beth is healthy and strong. Her cancer is in remission, and she will be coming off chemotherapy at the end of September.
Sarah Beth was still riding high from the excitement of the weekend's two performances.
"I think the shows went well," Sarah Beth said. "I've been on stage before, so this wasn't extremely new. I liked it. I don't know if I'm going to do another show, but I'd like to."
The cast was comprised of 35 actors, most of them children playing orphans, with a few teen-agers starring in the adult roles. It was a tremendous volunteer effort, with hundreds of people young and old donating their time and talents toward the productions, which included two-month's worth of rehearsals.
"This was all put together for Sarah Beth. It was all put together to help fulfill her wish," said Julia.
The wish was sponsored through the Make-A-Wish Foundation's "Kids for Wish Kids" program. The program encourages kids to engage in philanthropic activities to benefit kids with life-threatening illnesses. Scores of children from area schools held fund raising activities to help pay for the play's production.
"What is really special about this wish is that it was granted by Sarah Beth's peers. Children helped to make this wish come true," said Sandra Lehrer, president of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Metro St. Louis.
There are four types of wishes. I want to be ... I want to have ... I want to go ... and I want to meet. Sarah Beth's "I want to be" wish was the first of its kind in the St. Louis area.
Both of last weekend's performances were sold out. Kirkwood donated the use of the 525-seat Lion's Amphitheater. The city's park's department donated staff time, space and support toward the production.
The play was produced by Julie Lanio of the Kirkwood Parks and Recreation Department. Other individuals loaning their talents were Director Anna De Merit; Choreographer Diana Sucher; Musical Director Joe Schoen; and Wish Granters Ruth Dunton and Nancy Zak, to name a few.
"It was wonderful. Everything went perfectly," said Julia, Sarah Beth's mother. "Most importantly, Sarah Beth had the most fun of all. The audience was the last piece of the puzzle to put this wish together. They were great, the weather was perfect, and Sarah Beth did wonderfully."
Sarah Beth chose many of her fellow cast members from among her friends. Those friends, in turn, asked their friends to be in the musical.
"The others were teen-agers, and they were chosen by the directors," Julia said. "They couldn't have chosen better. They were absolutely great."
The role of Daddy Warbucks was played by 17-year-old Matthew Flinner. Flinner chose to shave his Warbucks' head bald as a gesture of solidarity with those children in the audience, many of whom had lost their hair as the result of chemotherapy.
"Matthew was a standout. They had to sing and dance together, and he had a real connection with Sarah Beth. Most teens don't reach out to eight-year-old the way he did," Julia said.
Others helping to make Sarah Beth's wish come true included Music Theatre international in New York City. The group donated the complete Annie, Jr. kit from the Broadway Junior Collection. Carol House Furniture donated bunk beds, Arrow Box Co. provided set materials, and Thompson-Thorberg contributed a star engraved with Sarah Beth's name to hang in her dressing room.
"The slogan of the Make-A-Wish Foundation is, 'in the community, for the community, through the community.' Sarah Beth's wish embodies this. Hundreds of people were involved in this project," said Wendy Schneider.
This year the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Metro St. Louis expects to make good on 220 wishes. That up significantly from last year, when the group granted 136 wishes.
"We will grant a wish to every medically eligible child. We grant wishes to any child with a life-threatening illness," Schneider said.
The local Make-A-Wish chapter, established in 1990 and serving eastern Missouri and southern Illinois, recently celebrated its 1,000 wish granted. More than 83,000 wishes have been granted nationwide.
For more information on the Make-A-Wish Foundation, or to make a donation, call 918-WISH.