A 16-year-old sophomore Kaeli Heffner will appear in the spotlight at Shenendehowa High School East playing Millie in this year’s musical, “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
This isn’t the first time that this youngster has been center stage. Last year, as a freshman, she snagged the lead role of Sandy in Shen’s production of “Grease.” Heffner said: “The guy who played Danny was a senior who I had seen in shows before and it was just like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re going to be kissing him now, you’re going to be doing scenes with him now’ — it’s crazy!”
Since December, she and the other students have been rehearsing and now, finally, it’s time for the show to go on. “I love putting myself out there and feeling the emotion of a song or a scene,” Heffner said. “I love the adrenaline, letting myself go and making people laugh or cry.”
She is particularly excited about this role. “I love to tap and to belt and that’s what Millie does,” she said. “It’s insane; it’s really amazing too because the other girl, Brenna, has been one of my idols for so long so to be sharing it with her is so inspiring, but also very daunting.”
Musicals have been part of her life as far back as she can remember. “When I was little, I loved to watch musical movies; I loved ‘Annie,’ ‘Cats’ and ‘Annie Get Your Gun,’ ” Heffner said. “I used to sit in front of the TV and act out the scenes.”
However, her favorite musical will always be “Guys and Dolls.”
“It has everything,” she said. “The romance, it’s hilarious, great dancing, great songs, great characters.”
Her first role was as a munchkin in “The Wizard of Oz” with the Shen Summer Adventures Camp when she was 8 on the same stage she will be standing on as Millie. Since then, she has taken her talents to new heights.
Heffner was born in Las Vegas, moved to Pennsylvania, then to Rexford and finally ended up in Clifton Park — where she has lived for most of her life.
Her parents both work at Shenendehowa. Her mom, Kristie, is the secretary to the athletic director and her dad, Andy, is a maintenance technician. “It’s really cool because my mom is always right there if I need her, especially with the musical,” Heffner said.
Heffner is an only child, and her parents have always been two strong pillars of support, including their support of her dream of a stage career. “They’ve always played music in the house; on weekends it’s always blasting,” she said. “They would always take me to shows and encouraged me; even when I talk about my future they never talk about having a backup plan because they know it’s what I want and I’m going to keep going until I get it.”
She finds a great deal of inspiration in the flair of others. “I’m influenced a lot by local talent; whenever I see someone who makes me feel something, it makes me want to do that even more,” Heffner said. “But also the Broadway greats like Idina Menzel, she’s so composed and has such a presence, and Alan Cumming, he’s just crazy good; to be able to let yourself go and not be reserved on stage is amazing.”
Even though she’s only a sophomore, Heffner knows what she wants. Her plan is to head off to school and study theater, hopefully as close to New York City as possible so that she can try to work while in school.
She can’t pinpoint her dream role; she’d like the chance to dig into them all, and put her flair on the characters that she has come to cherish. One day, she wants to live in New York City, pounding Broadway to be in a show.
Theater is part of her life in and outside the walls of Shenendehowa. In April, she will play Beth in the Not So Common Players production of “Little Women,” which will be staged at the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library. “Ever since I read the book I’ve just loved her; she’s just the sweetheart of the show, the protagonist’s best friend, and she really influences a lot of Jo’s ambitions to push harder and reach for the stars,” Heffner said. “Plus, she has beautiful songs.” Her favorite is “Some Things Are Meant to Be” — a duet between Jo and Beth. “At the callbacks, the girl playing Jo started to cry a little bit when we were singing it together,” she said. “That was really amazing.”
Before making her grand entrance as Millie, Heffner will go through some customary stages. “I always panic a little, that’s a tradition,” she said. “With Millie, there will probably be some hyperventilating. I always look in the mirror, breathe, shake it out and drink a ton of water.”
She also reminds herself to stop overthinking. “My best performances are the ones where I’m in the moment,” she said. “If it’s not in the moment, then it’s not real.”