Keira Cromwell comes in a tiny 10-year-old package, wrapped up in shiny black hair, big dark eyes and a smile that blings. Inside, there’s a dynamo who isn’t impeded much by the braces on her legs, or fingers that don’t work so well sometimes.
“I do OK, but I need a wheelchair for long distances,” she said, sitting across from her mom, Heather, and grandmother, Monica. The three live together in O’Fallon, and as Heather said, “take care of each other.” Keira has polio.
On a Thursday night, her pint-size wheelchair with the flashing front wheels was acting as an oversized tea cart; she was a teacup named Chip. Professional actress Leah Berry pushed her around a rehearsal hall at The Muny in St. Louis, going through their paces as characters in the Disney musical “Beauty and the Beast.” The pair play mother and son (Leah is Mrs. Potts, the teapot).
Put on by Variety Children’s Theatre, this eighth annual stage production/fundraiser will take place Oct. 21 to 23 at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri St. Louis.
For more than 80 years, Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis (previously Variety Club) has helped thousands of St. Louis area children with disabilities, providing them with vital medical equipment, as well as educational, therapeutic and recreational programs.
The “Beauty and the Beast” cast consists of 78 professional actors and 48 children and teens. Of those youngsters, 33 are Variety kids working on and behind stage, said Jean Steck, director of communications for Variety. Keira went through several auditions before being chosen to play Chip.
“It’s been really great! All the people are really nice,” she said. “I really love to sing.”
Her mother laughed and shook her head. Keira likes to crank up the music at home and sing, “What Does the Fox Say?”
“I think it’s pretty amazing she got this part,” said Heather. “She’s never been in a theatrical show before; it’s her very first one.”
During the performances, Keira’s wheelchair will be covered by a custom-made “costume” that makes it look like a fanciful tea cart, with a big cup and saucer sitting on top. That’s Chip: Her head will stick out of the side of the cup.
The role is a perfect fit for Keira. Chip sits in his rolling cart until the very last moments of the fairy tale.
“So, it doesn’t matter if I’m in a wheelchair,” Keira said.
She’s quickly learning the ropes about acting on stage. Her mom and grandmother bring her to rehearsals at The Muny before they are moved the final week to the Touhill.
Pages of Keira’s script are rift with purple sticky notes that mark her lines. She’s got them all memorized.
Director Lara Teeter praised her for clear enunciation, then added a note about lifting her head and looking out at the “audience” — fellow actors not in her scenes.
“You have to talk downstage, sweetie pie, so they can see your beautiful face,” he explained.
When he told Keira to direct her voice “to the back of the parking lot,” she did exactly that: “There’s a girl in the castle!” The cast broke out in applause.
“She is fantastic!” said her stage mom Leah Berry during a break. An Equity actor who spent time in New York and now lives in St. Louis, she was in last year’s Variety show, “Mary Poppins,” and “begged to be in another show. I said I’ll be a napkin, I’ll be a plate. ... Doing this is the most inspiring experience I’ve ever had.”
Keira has what it takes to be a star in this show, Leah added. “She has a great attitude and she’s so polite and intelligent.”
Behind the scenes
Keira contracted polio in Vietnam, where Heather adopted her when she was 5 months old.
Unable to have children, Heather started thinking about adopting more than a decade ago, when she was 29 and single.
She had to wait until she was 30 to adopt because of an age requirement, she said. With paperwork complete and headed to Vietnam, Heather thought she would be taking home a healthy baby.
“The day we met her, she was super sick. She had a temperature of 104 and she didn’t move the right side of her body,” Heather said. Doctors there thought Keira had suffered a stroke.
It didn’t matter to Heather. “I just knew I wanted her.”
Back in the U.S., Shriners Hospital for Children in St. Louis began caring for Keira at 13 months. She was diagnosed at 19 months with polio, which has mostly been eradicated from the world.
“There are only two places where polio is still around,” Heather said. “Southeast Asia is one of them.”
Keira lives with a weakness on the right side of her body. Her right lung is paralyzed and her right leg has not kept pace with the growth of the left. It is 2 inches shorter, so she wears a shoe with a special lift. Future surgeries may help grow the bone in that leg.
“They said she would never walk,” Heather said.
They were wrong.
Keira has had multiple surgeries over the years, the most recent in January when she underwent hip surgery.
“The hip was the third back-to-back surgery in two years,” Heather said. That included ACL reconstruction on her knees in 2015. “But, from Day 1, she’s been an outgoing child. No fear.”
She was still recovering and in a wheelchair when she auditioned for the Variety show.
Keira is home-schooled and in fifth grade. Life revolves around lessons, visits to her three doctors and physical and occupational therapy sessions.
“Sometimes it hurts; other times it’s like a massage and it feels so good,” she said, grinning.
Considering hospital stays, surgeries and pain, “She’s got such an upbeat attitude,” Heather said.
At home, Keira admits to driving her mother and grandmother a little crazy with singing, and a penchant for humming, a lot. She likes to cook and dress up in her favorite color, purple.
“I’ve got a two-wheel scooter and I like to ride that,” she said. And, she’s been known to want to speed in her wheelchair, something her mother has to put the brakes on.
But Heather looks for ways to let her daughter’s outgoing personality shine. Keira is an ambassador for Shriners Hospital in St. Louis, has sung at public events and competed in local festival pageants. She most recently was named Junior Miss Italian Fest at the annual Collinsville event.
What does she expect to take away from her experience as Chip in “Beauty and the Beast”?
“Well, I think I’ll be a better singer,” she said, then giggled. She had just learned that while wearing a body mike, she will have to be very quiet when others are speaking on stage.
“I have to get my humming under control; I don’t even know I’m humming!”
Other metro-east Variety kids in “Beauty and the Beast”:
- Alexander Eichholz (town teen), of O’Fallon
- Rachel Haselhorst (napkin, spinning plate), of Swansea
- Madi Proctor (town kid), of Red Bud
- Kira Avertt (set design), of Mascoutah
At a glance
Here’s what you need to know about “Beauty and the Beast”:
- When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21; 1:30 and 7 p.m. Oct. 22; 1:30 p.m. Oct. 23
- Where: Touhill Performing Arts Center, One University Blvd., St. Louis
- Ticket prices: $15 to $45. Purchase online at tickets.touhill.org. Special pricing available for groups of 10 or more. Please contact the ticket office directly at 314-516-4949 for more information.
- Information: The Touhill Ticket Office is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays to Fridays and until 6 p.m. on Thursdays. Call 314-516-4949 or 866-516-4949.
- Ask about special aids for some performances, including audio-describing for those with vision impairments, sign interpretation and playbills in Braille.
About Keira Cromwell
- Age: 10
- Hometown: O’Fallon
- Family: Mom Heather and grandmother Monica Cromwell
- Homeschooled: Keira is in fifth grade
- Favorite color: Purple and rainbow
- Favorite food: Shrimp, with an asterisk: “I can’t eat it. Figured out a year ago I was allergic.” So, she chose a big cup of noodles. She likes dumplings, too.
- Best school subject: “Well, I like English, math and science. And history.” (Mom Heather says it’s history.)
- Favorite book: A series called “Magic Tree House.”
- Favorite movie: “Tangled” and anything Harry Potter.
- Advice to children who might be facing serious health problems: “I’d tell them to never give up. They’ll feel better and get back to being strong.”
- Plans for the future: “I want to be a knee doctor so I can help my mom. She has bad knees; I have bad knees.”