Annie The Ageless Orphan

What: Annie
When: October 21-26
Where: Times-Union Center’s Moran Theater
Info: www.artistseriesjax.org
The producers of Annie are redefining the timeless Broadway musical’s roots by bringing the original lyricist Martin Charnin to the helm. This new production will be a classic incarnation of the beloved original, featuring book and score by Tony Award-winners Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse, and Charnin. Annie includes the memorable songs as ‘It’s the Hard Knock Life,’ ‘Easy Street,’ ‘I Don’t Need Anything But You,’ as well as the eternal anthem of optimism, ‘Tomorrow.’

In the title role of Annie is 9-year-old Issie Swickle. Gilgamesh Taggett will star as Oliver Warbucks. In the role of Miss Hannigan is Lynn Andrews. Also starring in the tour are Ashley Edler as Grace, Garrett Deagon as Rooster, Lucy Werner as Lily, and Allan Ray Baker as FDR. The Orphans are played by Angelina Carballo, Adia Dant, LillyBea Ireland, Sydney Shuck, Lilly Mae Stewart and Isabel Wallach.

“The production is exciting because the original director and conceiver of the musical, Martin Charnin, is having another go at it with this one,” Deagon says. “He is coming at it with fresh eyes. He really wants to bring the reality of the time period and the honesty of the characters to this production. It’s his baby, so it’s really exciting to watch him work.”

Charnin is taking creative liberties with the play’s original landscape. “Watching him work on the spot was really inspiring, making subtle lyric changes and adding lines. He’s so quick on his feet. He’s really made the show something spectacular and new,” he says. “The play is geography. Every moment leads to the next moment, and he’s just sort of altering the geography. He’s a genius.”

Charnin’s return to the director’s seat presented a few small challenges. His bid to stay true to the time period was tricky with the majority of the 25-member cast too young to relate to the era and the dialogue. Deagon says it was interesting to watch the young actors grasp the meanings behind some of the expressions and references.

“There was difficulty sometimes because they were unfamiliar with the dialogue. They really had to be taught what some of these things are, like a knuckle sandwich,” Deagon says. There are other times that the present collides with the past they are trying to recreate, such as when a kid busts out a dance move that would not have been around during that time. “You have to catch them before they ingrain that in their bodies because it is such a subtle thing. It’s such a struggle for them, but everyone is doing a good job,” Deagon says.

“There is a one-to-one parent to kid ratio, so the kids have their parents there to keep them in check, and they also have a school teacher as well as a child wrangler who’s with us–the one who makes sure they don’t miss their cues or they’re not texting backstage. They are so professional that they kind of take me by surprise. They are under so much pressure, but they are all really inspiring.”

Deagon gets a less than warm and fuzzy feeling from Sunny, the 4-year-old rescue terrier mix starring as Annie’s adopted dog Sandy. Sunny is trained by Tony Award-honoree William Berloni, who has also worked with four-legged cast members of Annie, A Christmas Story and Legally Blonde. In order to help the animal build a relationship with the young star, the majority of the cast is forbidden to interact with the dog backstage lest they corrupt the developing bond. Not unlike a trained service animal, Sunny is a working actor and can’t be interrupted while doing that job.

“They want Sunny to want to be with our Annie, so she’s the one who interacts with her on and off stage. We don’t really get to touch the dog,” Deagon says, noting one exceptional day when Sunny’s handlers noticed that the dog was a little down in the dumps. Then the cast was encouraged, just once, to show their canine compadre a little love to help raise her spirits. “It’s so funny, but they have a lot of tricks that they do onstage and looks they have to make; they have a heavy load, those puppies.”

Deagon relishes his role as the deliciously awful Rooster, who attempts to convince Annie that he is her long-lost father. “I think the villains are the most fun to play,” he says. “He’s also a little goofy, so there is some comedy to it. I get to be an evil guy with Miss Hannigan, and I still get a couple of gags and gimmicks in there. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Since Rooster doesn’t appear until later in the show, Deagon is enjoying his time backstage as well as onstage. “I get to watch almost the whole show. It’s just amazing. I can’t believe how thrilling the show is from beginning to end. It’s non-stop fun. I don’t think a single person will be disappointed,” he says. “The sets are glorious. They are huge. Everything has a really special weight to it. So many of the original production team are involved with this, so it’s really just spectacular.”

Annie is presented by the FSCJ Artist Series October 21-26 at the Times-Union Center’s Moran Theater. For more information and to reserve tickets, go to www.artistseriesjax.org.

About Liza Mitchell

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