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Campagna directs musical that was her first major production as actor 20 years ago

Barry McNamara
Assistant Professor of Theatre Vanessa Campagna with Ani Kramer
Twenty years after appearing in Meet Me in St. Louis as a member of the children’s chorus, Monmouth College Assistant Professor of Theatre Vanessa Campagna is directing the musical, which will be staged April 6-9 at the College’s Wells Theater and produced in partnership with the Buchanan Center for the Arts.

“The fact that it was my first major production 20 years ago makes directing and choreographing this production very special to me personally,” said Campagna, who joined Monmouth’s faculty in 2014.

There is a chance that, 20 years from now, history could repeat itself – although the current dream for 9-year-old actress Ani Kramer, who plays the role of Tootie Smith, is to become a professional ballet dancer.

Ani is the daughter of Monmouth communication studies faculty member Lori Walters-Kramer and videographer Tim Kramer, who works in the College’s communications and marketing office.

“Ani is marvelous,” said Campagna. “I am routinely impressed by what a fast learner she is. Her dedication is commendable, and it is impressive that I can give her a note and she will implement the change immediately. She is a natural.”

And Ani appreciates the help she’s received from Campagna.

“If you’re having trouble with something, she doesn’t just leave you alone,” said Ani. “She helps you get through it.”

Ani has already appeared in a handful of productions, including a joint Monmouth College-Buchanan Center for the Arts production of The Nutcracker. Although dancing is her main passion, she simply enjoys performing.

“I just love being on stage,” said Ani, who dances and sings in the production. “I like being in plays. They’re a lot of fun, and you get to meet new people. And you get to be someone else.”

Ani said Tootie is “tomboyish and mischievous,” and noted her character carries around a doll named Bridget Rockefeller.

Dressing in costume is also a perk.

“They’re all in dresses, and they’re all fancy,” said Ani. “Nowadays, you don’t wear fancy stuff all the time.”

Based on the 1944 MGM musical, Meet Me in St. Louis is centered around the Smith family at the turn of the century in St. Louis. Ani said she has enjoyed interacting with her stage family, especially her big sister in the production, played by Katie Yelm ’17 of Laura, Ill.

“She’s also my music assistant at school,” said Ani, who is a third-grader at Harding Primary School.

Ani believes audiences will be in for a good time at the musical.

“It’s very funny,” she said. “I think they’ll like the music. We spent a lot of time on the music.”

Working with community members young and old is rewarding for Campagna, in part because “making arts accessible in all communities is an artistic mission of mine. I feel that the partnership between Monmouth and the Buchanan Center for the Arts is one avenue for living that mission.”

Also, she said, “Having the larger audition pool with the community productions creates more possibilities in casting, and that is something I find artistically and pedagogically rewarding.”

It doesn’t take a lot of effort for Campagna to imagine what Ani is feeling as she prepares for her first named role in a production.

“I was at once fascinated and intimidated,” Campagna recalled. “Those feelings have not left me. Jean Cocteau speaks of this beautifully in his published journals: ‘After all this time, the theatre, where I work now, has not lost its prestige. I respect it. It intimidates and fascinates me. ... I live in it.’”