by Bruce Strand, Arts editor
The title role of “Annie” in the Elk River Community play that opens Friday night look like lots of fun to play. Indeed, countless thousands of young girls from small town theaters to Hollywood have pined to play the 1920’s New York street urchin for decades.
It’s not an easy task, though, says ERCT director Eileen Anderson, who chose Shelby Swenson, 13, of Elk River, and Sierra Sommerfeldt, 10, of Blaine, to take turns as Annie in the run of seven performances.
“Annie is a tough part to play,” said Anderson. “She has to be optimistic and tough, but there has to be a sadness underneath, too, or she’ll come off as flippant. That’s not an easy thing for a child.”
Anderson said she’s known Swenson for several years but had never met Sommerfeldt until she came in to audition. The director was impressed enough by both to entrust them with the challenging role.
The two little girls have brought endearing qualities to Annie in rehearsals viewed by the Star News. Along with singing “Tomorrow” and other enduring classics, and convincingly melting the heart of gruff, wealthy new friend Mr. Warbucks, the girls have the added task of sharing scenes with a live doggie. That seems to be going, well, too, as the big blonde local pooch named Shadow has been most amiable playing Sandy.
Warbucks is played by Kevin Hunter of Elk River, a 20-year theatre veteran who jumped at the chance to do “Annie” because he only worked with kids once before (in “Oklahoma”) and enjoyed it immensely.
To help him convey his growing affection for Annie, Hunter and his family got acquainted with Sierra and Shelby, taking them to Valley Fair and playing tennis with them.
“We got to know each other and had some fun, so it wouldn’t be hard for me to go through those scenes,” said Hunter. He added, with a smile, “I would adopt either of those two girls myself in a heartbeat!”
Jennifer Piehl, of Rogers, plays Grace Farrell, Warbucks’ loyal, efficient private secretary, whose relationship with the billionaire grows as they get closer to Annie. The Rockford Middle School science teacher is accustomed to children. “They keep me young, and keep me on my toes,” said Piehl.
Piehl regards Grace as a sort of early feminist by 1920’s standards, working for a businessman, not content with life in the kitchen.
“That comes through when she says to Oliver, ‘But you didn’t say ‘boy’ when you told me to get an orphan’ — so she chose a girl!” reflected Piehl.
Hunter, who broadcasts the Business Forum on 1570 and 1280 each evening, has been acting since 1993 in community theatre and some film. He played Col. Mustard in “Clue” and Oscar in “Odd Couple” previously with ERCT.
“On my business show,” Hunter said, “I encourage people to do this (act) because it really helps people expand their comfort zone, which makes them better leaders and makes sales people more confident.”
In the familiar storyline, Annie and her pal Sandy run away from the orphanage and mingle with street people in NYC as she tries to find her mom and dad. The police bring her back, but Grace shows up in search of an orphan for a visit to Warbucks mansion, and picks her. Warbucks becomes captivated. But when he learns Annie’s heart is set on finding her parents, he throws his weight behind helping her, offering a big reward. He even takes Annie to the White House to visit Franklin Roosevelt. The plot thickens as the orphanage director, and her brother and his girlfriend, hatch a scheme to claim Annie and collect the money. And … well, it’s a rollercoaster of a story, colorful and funny, evoking a range of emotions.
Anderson said she is accenting the contrasts between the have and have-nots, in their attire and dwellings especially, as a nod to the growing homelessness in current society.
The play has a cast of 80, including two Annie’s and two separate sets of seven orphans.
Dee Dee Buckley of Roseville, a popular regular here in recent years with a big voice and commanding presence, plays the boozy Miss Hannigan, the orphanage director with little sympathy for the orphans. Jonathan Rehlander plays Rooster, her charming rogue, ex-con brother, with his ditzy girlfriend Lilly St. Regis in tow, played by Emily Bowersox.
Bob Price of Coon Rapids plays Roosevelt, with the familiar head tilt and dangling cigarette holder. It’s Price’s first appearance here but he’s done lots of community theatre, especially enjoying FDR.
“Bob has played Roosevelt several times,” said Anderson, “and he’s really got the mannerisms down.”
Russ Branjord plays the NYC cop on the beat who keeps an eye on Annie and her dog. He’s also one of FDR’s cabinet members.
Brian Budahn is the orchestra director while Billy Chesmore heads up the stage and light crews.
At Zabee Theatre,
Elk River High School
Friday, July 26, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 27, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 28, 3 p.m.
Thursday, Aug. 1, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Aug. 2, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 3, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Aug. 4, 3 p.m.