In Tough Times, Annie Resonates

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(Host) Northern Stage in White River Junction is celebrating its 15th year bringing professional-level theater to the Upper Valley. For their 100th production, the stage is returning to its very first holiday presentation.

VPR’s Neal Charnoff takes us "Backstage" with "Annie.’

(Charnoff) The enduring Broadway musical Annie seems a perfect fit both as holiday entertainment, and as a spirited commentary on optimism in hard times.

Based on the comic strip, Little Orphan Annie, the show takes place in the midst of The Great Depression. A little girl is dropped off at an orphanage run by the mean-spirited Miss Hannigan.

Joined by her adopted dog Sandy, Annie embarks on a search for her parents, charming everyone she encounters, and greeting the world with sunny optimism.

That’s not always easy, especially with tough cases like the temperamental Miss Hannigan, played by Gwendolyn Jones.

Annie plays out against the backdrop of the era’s misery and poverty. Director Brooke Ciardelli says the theme of income inequality stands out in the times we live in. Characters range from wealthy entrepreneurs to families living in shantytowns. The play even includes a White House debate over how to address the country’s problems.

(Brooke) "So to hear those politics from the 1930’s in today’s world is incredibly relevant, and is the root of a lot of the humor in the show as well."

(Charnoff) Ciardelli says the anger and desperation in these scenes is palpable, until Annie arrives.

(Brooke) "And Annie walks into the scene and has a completely different perspective. Somebody said, "Empty pockets." She said, "Well at least you’ve got pockets." Newspapers for blankets? You can read in bed. So she just takes the desperation and turns it around, and brings a lot of humor to it.

(Charnoff) Ciardelli says this optimism is at the heart of the show’s appeal.

And of course, this optimism is the source of the musical’s most iconic song, "Tomorrow."

(Brooke) "The song, the sun will come out tomorrow, makes audiences believe again in the power of human beings and people connecting to each other."

(Charnoff) Ciardelli says there are two basic challenges in staging "Annie."

With a cast that includes a dozen children under the age of 12, you need to cultivate young, often untrained voices. In fact, Ciardelli and her musical director Joel Mercier began working with the kids in July, teaching singing, dancing and theater 101.

Joel Mercier says the musical score in Annie can be daunting.

(Mercier) "It’s a very high score, they have to sing very high and a lot. So it’s about trying to build their stamina, trying to make sure everything is working correctly, so that they will be able to sustain up to ten shows a week."

(Charnoff) Another challenge is how to make familiar songs like "Tomorrow" sound fresh. Mercier says the key is to go back to the lyrics.

(Mercier) "Not just what is the song about but what is every word is about, what images do those bring. And then that allows us to recreate it, and oftentimes, yes, we find what the same thing that the original cast or the original recording found, but often we find nuances that make it fresh, and new to us, and therefore to the audience."

(Charnoff) The role of Annie is played by 12-year-old Mollie Brown of Wentworth, New Hampshire. Brown agrees that it’s essential to be able to put yourself in your character’s shoes.

(Brown) "The biggest challenge for me is Annie has a lot of different emotions that she feels during the show, it’s a lot of breaking down each scene and each word to know how to put that emotion into each line."

(Charnoff) Director Brooke Ciardelli says Annie’s sense of heart and optimism is the key to the show’s continued appeal.

(Brooke) "We see the world through the optimistic eyes of a child, and we see New York City for the first time through the eyes of a child, and we see a child who’s never experienced love or a sense of belonging discover what a home means."

(Charnoff) Ciardelli says that with a great cast that includes the perfect Annie, the stars are aligned for Northern Stage’s 100th production, setting the stage for the next 15 years of theater in the Upper Valley.

Annie runs at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction through January 8th.

For VPR Backstage, I’m Neal Charnoff.

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