Wicked Talent

It’s not easy being a pre-teen. But being an 11-year-old triple-threat — singer, dancer and actor — while finishing your homework for the next school day is even harder. St. Augustine’s Ella Romaine handles it just fine.

At a Thursday night rehearsal for “Bad Seed” at the Limelight Theatre, Ella didn’t have many lines or much action to cover, despite being the lead — Rhoda Penmark, the 8-year-old villain.

“It feels kinda weird. I’m in the play, I rehearse the play, and then, when I get home, I think about other things,” said Ella, a sixth-grader at R.J. Murray Middle School.

The production is based on the 1954 play “The Bad Seed” by American playwright Maxwell Anderson, which was adapted from the 1954 novel of the same name by American writer William March. The show originally opened on Broadway in December 1954, then was adapted for a 1956 film that earned four Academy Award nominations.

Through all of its transformations – novel, theater, film and even a made-for-TV remake in 1985 — “Bad Seed” has had one commonality: the sweet-on-the-outside and menacing-on-the-inside world of Rhoda Penmark.

Although nothing like Rhoda, Ella was chosen specifically for her acting ability and the director’s confidence that she could handle the mature nature of the role.

“Bad Seed” centers on the sweet and charming Rhoda, who is much loved by her elders, but falls under suspicion when a rival schoolmate mysteriously drowns at a picnic.

During rehearsals, Ella was usually the only child in the theater. Her mother, Rebecca Romaine, sometimes accompanied her or left her under the supervision of the play’s director, Limelight Theatre Executive Director Beth Lambert.

“It was a tough decision for my husband Josh and me,” Romaine said. “But we realized it’s an opportunity for Ella to grow as an actor, so we made a decision that we would support her.”

Lambert discouraged Romaine from attending rehearsals; she became more chauffer than stage mom — dropping Ella off at the theater and then picking her up at the end.

“I’ve been a backstage mom for years — making costumes and helping with set design — so this has been a growing experience for both of us,” Romaine said.

That separation might have been a bit more difficult considering Ella’s past. She was born with a condition in her left foot called a tarsal coalition, or a fusion of the bone, which prevented her from bending her ankle. At age 10, she had foot surgery to correct the misplacement. The doctors opened up her bones, so she could have full range of motion and the operation was successful. 

“Shortly after, Ella auditioned for ‘The Little Princess,’ and although she was in a wheelchair — recovering — she owned it,” Romaine said. “She loved it and put her whole heart into it.”

“Bad Seed” won’t be Ella’s first encounter with the marquee. She has appeared in multiple productions of “The Nutcracker” by St. Augustine Ballet and various Limelight Theatre KidsfACTory shows including “Robin Hood,” “Pinkalicious The Musical” and “Frankenstein Takes the Cake.” 

Ella was recently cast as the lead in “Annie,” directed by JoAnn Nance and slated to hit the St. Augustine Amphitheatre stage
on Dec. 19.

“It’s a lot of work,” Romaine said. “But there’s nothing better than sitting in that audience and watching her shine. It’s a family effort, and everyone supports.”