Bet your bottom dollar, the 100-plus cast and crew of Valley’ Theatre’s “Annie” will keep audiences entertained when it launches its three day run at Middletown High School tonight.
The tale of Little Orphan Annie has been told through a 1920s comic strip, a book and the original Broadway musical that opened in 1977 and through Aug. 5, the story will come to Middletown in a production led by two different Annies Caroline Coleman, 11, and 12-year-old Kendal Neel.
A bulk of the more than 96 children who auditioned for the production showed up for a chance at playing Annie, the optimistic 11-year-old wishing for a family, whether it be her parents who promised to come back or her adoptive father Oliver Warbucks.
“The audition process was like nothing I’ve ever done before,” says director Jennifer O’Brien, who was asked to run the production by Valley Theatre artistic director Colleen McCarrick. “There is a decent amount of young talent in this area. We ended up with some really brilliant principals.”
Two such principals are Coleman, who will be performing in the opening show and the Saturday matinee, and Neel, who is playing Annie Saturday night and during the Sunday matinee.
Neel is no stranger to the role; she played Annie in Middletown Middle School’s production last year of “Annie Jr.,” a shortened version of the Broadway classic. “She’s a really good character she’s always upbeat and is an overall model for everybody,” says Neel. “Everyone likes her, she’s sunshine to them.”
In addition to her prior turn as Annie, Neel performed with Valley Theatre in last summer’s “The Wizard of Oz,” portraying the munchkin mayor. Coleman also recently played Brigitta in Olney Theatre’s “The Sound of Music” and performed in “Merry Wives of Windsor” by the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Though the role of Annie may be new to her, the character is not.
“I’ve seen the movie multiple times, so I was pretty familiar with the character,” says Coleman. “I also saw it in Baltimore and I tried to incorporate some of her qualities, but I also made it my own.”
Performing alongside the two Annies are William Lewis, 22, as Warbucks and Ashley Birdsell, 20, as Miss Hannigan. Both seniors minoring in theatre at Hood College in Frederick, they found out about the production through McCarrick, who is a friend of Birdsell. As college students, they are two of the oldest cast members aside from President Roosevelt and his cabinet, who are portrayed by parents of children in the show.
This production is both Lewis’ and Birdsell’s first time acting as an adult with children.
“Now that I’m older than the kids, it’s interesting to me how some of them are really, really into it, and some of them you can tell have more fun off stage,” Birdsell says. “It’s great when I get a one-on-one chance to work with the kids as opposed to the big group.”
As Miss Hannigan, Birdsell gets to play the part of the villain, a role she has never played before.
“Jen keeps asking me for a lot of character work, so it’s more over the top than I’m used to,” she says, “it’s out of my comfort zone in that respect.”
While Birdsell is a fan of the songs she gets to perform, she’s still getting used to the costume.
“I’m all dowdy and my hair’s a big rat’s nest,” she says.
Appearance gave Lewis pause, as well. Although he also auditioned for the role of Rooster, he’s a fan of Warbucks but not his lack of hair.
“When I saw the movie as a kid he was my favorite character, he’s really funny - the only thing I was not looking forward to was going bald, so we went with a goatee instead.”
As for the iconic curly red hair on Annie? While naturally blonde Coleman will be donning two different red wigs for the role, Neel recently dyed her brown hair for the part.
“When I did ‘Annie Jr.’ I wore a wig, and it did not work well,” she said. “I have two red-headed brothers and a red-headed dad as well, so now I fit in pretty well I’m really happy with it.”
One new experience for most of the cast was working with a live dog. An Irish Setter named Mac will play Sandy, the dog Annie finds on the street and takes in. Neither Colman nor Neel have owned a dog before, so interacting with one on stage was a new experience and not without its difficulties.
“There’s moments where you’re like, ‘Oh, okay, that’s just what the dog will do at this point,’” says O’Brien. “But he’s been doing pretty well, and the actresses are good at going with the flow and working the scene to their advantage. I’m hoping he gets star fever and does great for the four shows.”
The Myersville-based Valley Theatre Inc., formerly known as Kids’ Theatre, has put on shows since 2002, and typically donates a portion of the proceeds to community members in need either through local charities or individual families. This summer, “Annie” will benefit both the San Mar Children’s Home in Boonsboro and the Frederick Rescue Mission, a group that aims to help the homeless, impoverished and those struggling with addiction and dependency in the community.
San Mar Children’s Home has been operational in one capacity or another since 1883, helping preteen and adolescent girls who have been through various forms of abuse.
“It’s just over the mountain, but it’s practically in our backyard,” says O’Brien. “A lot of the cast got to tour and say hi to the girls and see what they were helping out with.”
As the first show approaches, the cast is looking forward to seeing old friends and newcomers to “Annie.”
“I am really excited for all my friends to see it a bunch of my friends who used to perform with Valley Theatre are coming, I feel like I’m carrying on their legacy,” says Lewis. “Getting to see the two Annies take their final bow will be so rewarding to me because I know how it feels, getting that bow.”
“A lot of people think ‘Annie’ is about a little girl with red hair,” adds O’Brien. “It actually has this amazing message of optimism, it’s a show anybody can come in and watch. Life will go on no matter what happens.”