For the Sheridan Arts Foundation’s Young People’s Theatre (YPT) cast of “Annie,” “Tomorrow” has arrived. The young thespians in grades 6-8 will take the Sheridan Opera House stage Friday and Saturday for a limited audience comprised of cast members’ family only, thought the rest of us will be able to enjoy the video by early next week.
“Annie” is as solid a nugget as any musical in American theater history. Its namesake character is an abandoned little girl who is plucked from her orphanage by a billionaire who is at first motivated by wanting to burnish his public perception, but who eventually comes to love and adopt the little girl and her canine sidekick, Sandy.
Staging this classic musical is a surprising first for YPT director Leah Heidenreich.
“This show has always been on my radar,” she said. “It’s been in-demand by the kids. It’s the show that everyone knows and loves. It resonates, it’s delightful … doing it was just a no-brainer.”
To direct theater during a pandemic is to upend whatever is considered “normal” and essentially reinvent how the process — from casting to rehearsals to performance — will unfold. For YPT, what that has meant for the middle school program is splitting the students into three, smaller groups and casting three separate shows. “Annie” is the third of those shows. “Singin’ in the Rain” and “A Christmas Carol” kicked off the series. And for shows like “Annie,” which includes several numbers normally performed by numerous voices — think “It’s A Hard Knock Life,” which takes place in the orphanage — the smaller casts have been making up for it and then some, Heidenreich said.
“There are just 10 kids in this one,” she said. “It’s really scaled down. They’re amazing.”
After five months of rehearsals that adhered to public health orders and the varying shifts in color-coded alert levels, Heidenreich said these actors are ready to hit the stage.
“They deserve this weekend,” she said.
Limiting the live performance audience to just family was “the most prudent decision,” she said, given that current level is Level Orange Extreme, the highest the East End of the county has seen since the initial lockdown last March.
“We’re doing it to be safe,” she said. “We’re just one step from Level Red.”
The musical was actually born as a comic strip penned by Harold Gray called Little Orphan Annie. It debuted in the New York Daily News in 1924 and was last published in 2010, though by then it was written and drawn by others. Following a popular, early-1930s radio show, two film adaptations were released in 1932 and 1938. But it wasn’t until 1977 when the musical opened on Broadway that “Annie” became the full-blown cultural phenomenon that swept the country. It enjoyed a six-year run, two revivals, plus one in London, and three — yes, three — feature-length films.
The 1982 film is the best-known version. More than 8,000 little girls auditioned to be Annie — Aileen Quinn won the role — a process that took a year, beginning in 1980. When it came to merchandise, “Annie” fans could select from 500 products ranging from lunchboxes to clothing, key chains to stuffed Sandy toys. At the time it was the most expensive musical ever made, costing the studio approximately $40 million to produce.
“Annie” is so deeply rooted in American culture, the song “Tomorrow” takes a star turn in John Waters’ dark comedy crime film classic, “Serial Mom,” the offbeat story of suburban housewife Beverly Sutphin (played by Kathleen Turner) whose murderous tendencies are brought on by the slightest perceived offences. When the “Annie” fanatic character Mrs. Jensen berates Beverly’s son at the video rental store, we know the woman is not long for this world. Mrs. Jensen’s dog tries to let her know there’s an intruder, but Mrs. Jensen tells her pooch, “Mommy’s watching ‘Annie.’” As “Tomorrow” blasts from the television set, Beverly takes another victim.
No such darkness exists in the YPT production. Bright, young energy, sweet voices and crackling choreography inform the show about the triumph of good over bad, and the redemption of love over abandonment. It is a show of unfailing optimism and perfect for the challenges of these times.
But it does not signal the end of Heidenreich’s efforts as a director. Up next for YPT — beginning Monday, in fact — rehearsals for the high school shows “Tuck Everlasting” and “Cinderella” begin.
“It’s bananas,” she admits. “But if I’ve learned anything this year is that we do not need absolute perfection. It’s enough to be with people, making art, having fun and putting on a show.”