Thursday December 6, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- Energy has never been in short supply at New England Youth Theatre, but lately folks there have gotten an extra boost from a jolt of Girl Power.

For its annual holiday season show, NEYT presents the hit musical "Annie," the uplifting story of a plucky orphan girl who triumphs over adversity to find a home in glamorous New York City and warm the heart of the crusty financier Oliver Warbucks.

With a cast that numbers nearly 50 and a crew led by a team of powerhouse women, "Annie" opens tonight and runs through Dec. 16, at NEYT, 100 Flat St.

The show has special meaning for director Rebecca Waxman, who remembers seeing the original production of "Annie" on Broadway when she was about the same age as many of the young people in the NEYT cast. She was awestruck by Thomas Meehan’s story, Charles Strouse’s music and Martin Charnin’s lyrics. Most of all, she was captivated by Andrea McArdle, the girl who played Annie and made the song "Tomorrow" an anthem for stage-struck girls like Waxman.

"Every theatrical girl in my generation learned to belt like Andrea McArdle," said Waxman.

But more than just the way MacArdle sang it, the triumph of "Annie" lay in the story. So full of hope ... poignant and plucky ... with the teeming world of 1930s New York City in the background, "Annie" follows the story of a brave girl who escapes the orphanage into the wondrous world of New York City. On a determined quest to find her parents, she ends up foiling the machinations of the evil Miss Hannigan and befriends President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She finds a new home and family in billionaire Oliver Warbucks, his personal secretary Grace Farrell, and a lovable mutt named Sandy.

"What makes this show so great is the bravery of this one kid and her inexhaustible optimism," said Waxman. "It’s not saccharine; it’s plucky."

It also has the one ingredient that NEYT Founder Stephen Stearns insists on in a holiday musical -- a miracle.

"The miracle is the transformation of this crusty billionaire. He’s transformed by this girl," said Waxman. "Even in the face of all this hardship, her ability to love and be loved is amazing."

Stepping into the role of Warbucks, the hard-hearted mega-billionaire, envy of the 1 percent, and mover and shaker of Depression-era America is Sean Kelly, 17, a student at Fall Mountain Regional High School.

"He’s kind of like one of the ‘more-money-than-God’ people. At the beginning he’s really brash. He doesn’t care for anybody else," said Kelly. "Annie kind of breaks down that wall of inhumanity."

Annie has a gift for lifting people up to their greater selves. Who else could get FDR and his cabinet singing "Tomorrow"?

Doing all that wall-breaking in the title role are, not one, but two girls who are out to steal your heart.

Elle Jamieson and Ella Warner are both 10 and are pals and classmates at The Grammar School in Putney. They are also both excited to step into the role of a lifetime.

"I’ve been singing the songs since I was little," said Jamieson, who admires Annie’s spirit. "I think she’s kind and loving, but when she has to be she can be tough."

"She has a really cool personality. She can get sad, but it doesn’t last for a long time," said Warner. "She tries to believe and hope."

Warner hopes the audience will catch Annie’s spirit, too.

"I hope they will feel Annie’s sadness and hope, but also when she’s at Daddy Warbucks’, to feel that she loves him, too," said Warner.

Audiences should also love Sandy, the dog. NEYT has cast a real-live pup, Scout Naylor, in the iconic role.

"He’s so awesome. He’s so cute. He’s so sweet. He loves people," said Jamieson.

If that doesn’t get you, perhaps the colorful cast will. The sweeping, swirling worlds of the orphanage, New York City -- with its Hoovervilles, Automats, newsies, cabbies and more -- Warbucks’ mansion and the White House, are peopled with memorable characters, sporting costumes created by Sandy Klein.

Among them, watch out for Casey Greenleaf as the evil Miss Hannigan, Alec Silver as the scheming Rooster, Annie Caltrider as Grace Farrell and Henry Weisel as FDR.

Audiences should also be charmed by the orphans, a plucky band of 14 of them, who will sing and dance their way through their "Hard Knock Life."

Choreographer Jennifer Moyse praised her crew of orphans. "I’m so amazed at the dedication of the students playing our orphan girls. We cast them in June, and they’ve been dancing with me since September, getting ready for the show," Moyse stated.

Becky Graber is music director, leading the cast and a pit band that features Philip Thomas and Dominic Italia, in such memorable songs as "Tomorrow," "N.Y.C.," "Maybe," "Easy Street," "You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," "I Don’t Need Anything But You" and "New Deal for Christmas."

"There’s some sad songs and some of the songs say things about the story, and there’s some really happy songs that will cheer you up," said Warner.

The production doesn’t comes with "You’ll Be Humming These Songs For Days" guarantee, but it could.

"You can’t get these tunes out of your head," said Waxman. "One of the pleasures for me has been to hear family members singing these songs."

In keeping with the spirit of the season and the show, NEYT is holding a toy drive for local children in need. Bring wrapped toys with a girl or boy label on them to NEYT when you come. Gifts will be distributed to various local service providers, who will deliver them to local children.

Performances of "Annie" are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Dec. 6-8, 13-15 at 7 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays, Dec. 8-9 and 15-16 at 2 p.m.

Tickets are $12 for students, $14 for adults.

Tickets may be purchased in advance at www.neyt.org, or at the NEYT Box Office in person, or by phone (802-246-6398, from noon to 5 p.m., on Wednesdays.

New England Youth Theatre is an accessible theater, with accommodations for wheelchairs, and assistive listening devices for patrons who are hard of hearing. Sponsors include Berkley & Veller Greenwood Country Realtors and The Richards Group.