In the cafeteria of Milwaukee’s St. Bernadette Parish, where the annual musical production will be staged by Northwest Catholic School students this weekend, Margaret Thorn has put together a display honoring  the late Mary Pfannerstill Lorusso.

“She believed in children and giving them an opportunity to shine,” reads a message regarding Lorusso in the glass-enclosed display. “She created an environment where children are allowed to ‘make believe’ in a safe and nurturing environment, to create, to stretch their expectations of themselves.…”

Lorusso, who died in 2009, was principal of the school which serves St. Bernadette, St. Catherine of Alexandria and Our Lady of Good Hope congregations on the city’s northwest side. She directed more than 30 musicals in that cafeteria, now known as the Mary Lorusso Theatre. Thorn, who’s been involved intermittently in the annual production since her seventh-grade spring of 1980, is directing 28 Northwest Catholic youngsters in “Annie.”

Along with “Annie’s” sound board operator, T.J. Wildt, Thorn recalled her directing predecessor and considered the current production during a recent interview with your Catholic Herald.

“Mary was a huge influence on all of us,” said Thorn, whose mother, Ruth Thorn, was a longtime Lorusso colleague on the St. Bernadette School faculty prior to the Northwest Catholic consolidation. Thorn added that Lorusso “encouraged with kind words. She was loving – and not afraid to be funny.”

Said Wildt, who began his long affiliation with the annual production as a St. Bernadette pupil in 1984, “She loved doing this for the children – to allow kids to use their imagination, do things they normally wouldn’t do, show what they were capable of.”

Echoing Thorn, Wildt said Lorusso “had a huge influence on me, on my sister (and on) many of my friends.”

Wildt recalled playing the villainous farmhand Jud Fry in “Oklahoma” as a grade schooler, while Thorn recalled portraying a nun and a ballroom dancer in “The Sound of Music.”

Thorn further remembered that, after Lorusso died suddenly while working in her yard, at age 64, “Gail Schwalbach (who’d been tabbed by Lorusso as assistant director for the upcoming 2010 musical “Bye Bye Birdie”) got a group together. We sat down and had the discussion of what we should do. It was pretty much unanimous that (Lorusso) would want the show to go on.”

Go on it has, under the direction of Schwalbach and then Thorn, for four years now.

It seems just about every musical one could think of has found its way to the parishioner-built stage in the St. Bernadette cafeteria since Lorusso introduced the annual student production concept in 1975. The stage has represented the Russian village of Anatevka in “Fiddler on the Roof,” the seamy side of London in “Oliver,” Iowa’s River City in “The Music Man,” Neverland in “Peter Pan.” It’s provided the settings for “Carousel “ and “Cinderella,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

This year’s “Annie” cast includes Northwest Catholic pupils in grades 4-8.

“They’re really great kids,” according to Thorn – which is not to say that directing them, or any large group of students, in a musical is a cakewalk.

“Oh, it’s a lot of work,” the director conceded. “But the outcome is amazing.”

Wildt spoke of the startling transformation of youngsters who start the rehearsal process “scared out of their wits, shy,” only to perform quite capably and comfortably onstage approximately three months later.

Adults – parents of cast members, individuals who performed on the Mary Lorusso Theatre stage in bygone years, community members simply interested in helping out – form the production staff for the annual venture. In that community members category for 2013 is Fr. Greg Greiten, pastor at St. Bernadette, who was recruited by Thorn.

The director is, admittedly, not at all shy about seeking helpers.

“People see me coming,” she joked, “it’s ‘Oh no! What does she want?’”

Among the parent volunteers are Sally and Frank Kallas. This year’s musical is the ninth in which one of their four children – Ryan, Lisa, Mary and Emily – has participated. Frank, who played in the St. Bernadette orchestra as a grade schooler, has rendered all sorts of production service as an adult.

Tickets will be available at the door for the 7 p.m. performances Thursday and Friday, April 25 and 26, and the 12:30 p.m. performance Sunday, April 28, at the St. Bernadette cafeteria/Mary Lorusso Theatre, 8200 W. Denver Ave., Milwaukee, three blocks south of West Good Hope Road. Ticket sales will begin approximately 45 minutes before each show. Cost is $7 for adults, $4 for children under 15.

“I give him a list and he does it,” Thorn said as Sally Kallas laughed.

Sally said she, too, is delighted with a jack-of-all-trades role.

“Come April 29,” the veteran volunteer predicted with reference to the day following the final performance of the “Annie” run, “we’re all going to go, ‘What are we going to be doing?’ It leaves a void when it’s over.”

Northwest Catholic principal Diana Erlandson has been “very supportive” of the production, according to Thorn. Sterling Biggers, a fifth-grade teacher at the school, along with his wife, Elterine Jankowski-Biggers, is acting as vocal director for “Annie”.

“We just encourage the community to come out and see the show, see how hard the kids have worked,” Thorn said.