ANNIE JR. GRACES BAMA THEATRE STAGE OCT. 4-6 WITH STAR-STUDDED LOCAL CAST
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“Alright guys, we’re at the top of the show. Everyone’s in their places, quiet off stage, house lights are going up. Let’s get this party started.”
That was the cue for 76 actors to pipe down, get ready and immerse themselves in the roles for which they have been cast. But there were no house lights or a stage – the third-floor multi-purpose room of Calvary Baptist Church was these kids’ stage for one final time before they moved into the Bama Theatre to perform “Annie Jr.,” as part of Tuscaloosa Children’s Theatre.
“We had a lot of kids audition for the show, over 100, and so we wanted the cast to be around 70. We ended up being closer to 80,” TCT’s artistic director Drew Baker said. “But the entire cast is so talented, and everybody has been so excited about this show. You can really tell that during rehearsals.”
Baker has been working with the cast of “Annie Jr.” for about two months now, and the show is nearly ready to hit the Bama Theatre stage. The cast, with ages ranging from 5 to 18 years old, is celebrating its final night rehearsing at Calvary Baptist before moving into the Bama, and needless to say, they are more than ready to take their show to the next level.
“Once we finish our rehearsals here, we’ll go to dress rehearsals at the Bama Theatre, which is my favorite part,” Averie Bonneville, a Hillcrest High School freshman who plays a servant in the show, said. “I love being able to put on the costumes for the first time and practice in them. It’s really friendly and we all work together.”
Bonneville said the process to get the show from auditions to the final production is fairly painless, packed with tons of support along the way. She’s been performing with TCT since the third grade and said growing up in the community theatre world has been a great aspect of her young life.
“Basically, we start with the songs and choreography, then we add the lines in to make it blend all together,” Bonneville said. “They give us notes when we mess up our lines or give us notes for things we can change to enhance the show, make it funnier.”
With three days a week to practice, on top of photoshoots, costume fittings, community sneak peek performances and everything in between, this young cast is being asked for a great deal of time and commitment to the craft. But, Baker said, they have the guts to handle it.
“It will amaze you how resilient they are, and how they’re like little sponges,” Baker said. “A lot of our cast, we know them well, they’ve been in lots of shows with us, some a few shows, some this may be their first show. But they just really amaze you. You wouldn’t believe the talent we have in this town. It’s amazing. We even have one little girl who drives all the way from Mississippi.”
No matter if it is their first or tenth show, Alexander Nowell said the family dynamic among the cast is strong enough to defy any obstacle. A junior at Northridge High School, he enjoys spending time making his character of Drake the butler come to life with the rest of his castmates.
“The process is always really fun, and we become a little family with all of our costars and everything,” Nowell said. “And it’s just so much fun to be able to put on a show for the public and invest in the show and invest in each other to make it great. I auditioned because I love these people, I love being around them and I love to be on stage.”
Perhaps the most anticipated character to see on stage is Annie herself. Played by 12-year-old Ava Grace South, the titular character of the show will be decked out with a bright personality and curly red hair to match. South said she is elated to play the role of Annie; a role she had dreamt of since she was younger.
“I decided to audition for ‘Annie’ because I’ve wanted that role ever since I was a little girl,” South said. “I’ve been singing the ‘Annie’ songs since I was really small.”
While these young thespians may sacrifice social time to spend in rehearsals, that has not deterred their excitement for the show. In fact, according to South, she has been spreading the word around her own school.
“I’m looking forward to getting to see my friends and getting my choir class, which is Mr. Bonner’s class at Hillcrest Middle School, to come hear me sing because they’re all excited and I’ve been hearing things about them turning in permission forms to come see me sing so that’s really exciting,” she said.
One of the more exciting parts of “Annie Jr.” is the opportunity to bring live animals into a cast of characters, and this production is no exception. South is accompanied by her very own Sandy, a dog who helps Annie through some of the harder times in the show. Sandy is played by a local pup named Sloan, who also had to audition and win the role.
A 10-month-old “double doodle,” Sloan belongs to a family whose daughter, Ella, is involved n TCT. Carl Tolbert, Sloan’s owner, said the family dog gained popularity among Ella’s peers when she was being picked up from theatre camp over the summer.
“The first day we dropped her off, that afternoon I went to pick Ella up and we were already the ‘dog car,’” Tolbert said. “Everybody was just really excited to see her every day when we would go to pick up Ella. And so … Mrs. Drew told me, she said, ‘Hey, we’re going to need a dog for Annie, would you be interested?’ I just kind of chuckled, I thought she was joking.”
As if South’s role could not be any more fun, she said working with Sloan is a highlight of her week, going so far as to say it’s her favorite aspect of the show.
“It’s kind of hard because she likes to jump on me and kiss me a lot and I have to give her treats for her to come to me, and she’s just so soft,” South said.
Any kinks in the show are what Baker refers to as “good problems.” And Tolbert cannot help but agree: the actors tend to love each other too much sometimes, the number of actors on stage at once can get a little cramped in the Calvary Baptist pseudo-stage, and even Sloan just wants to play and be a little rambunctious from time to time. But, like any good thespian, even Sloan can maintain a sense of professionalism when she needs to.
“She’s very adaptable,” Tolbert said. “She’s very intelligent, and always has been. I’ve been really happily surprised at her ability to stay calm, especially in a room full of children that want to touch her, and she wants to touch them. When we do the after-party a week from Sunday when the shows are done, I’m just going to set her loose and let everyone have fun with her.”
So, with an 80-person cast plus one dog, it is a mystery what kind of magic someone has to work to block, choreograph and make such a production shine in as little as two months. But choreographer Kelley Davis said it has been a treat working with this cast.
“I think one of the coolest things about this show is the cast,” Davis, a UA alumna from Bibb, Alabama, said. “We could not have asked for a better cast. We didn’t ever have to say, ‘Oh, this person will be OK in this role.’ It’s like, everybody is just perfect for the roles they’re in. We’ve got some really good dancers, so I’ve really been able to have some fun with the choreography and it’s been excellent.”
The beauty of children’s theatre stems from its legacy, and this is prevalent from the smallest roles to the artistic director herself. Many TCT staff members and “Annie Jr.” performers are veterans of the art, having been in multiple shows before this one. This, stage manager Kara Kuczkowski said, is what makes that familial aspect so easy to obtain.
“These kids have a love for theater that I have never seen anything like before,” Kuczkowski, a UA senior studying theatre and public relations, said. “They’re all incredibly talented, either with singing, dancing, acting or all three. It’s hard to find a community like this that’s so involved with their kids and with their kids being in the arts.”
Not only do these kids love the arts, but they also love giving back. Baker and Kuczkowski have worked to incorporate acts of philanthropy into their productions, and through encouraging their actors to donate to charitable organizations that fit within the theme of their productions, such as giving back to foster care initiatives in honor of “Annie Jr.,” the kids get to learn about the importance of including charity in their passions. Plus, the good-spirited energy the kids exude is something Kuczkowski said she holds dear to her heart.
“‘Annie Jr.’ is a show that everybody knows,” she said. “Everybody knows the story of Annie and her bright attitude on those dreary days, something we all aspire to have. This show has definitely had me feeling that way sometimes. Like, I’ll have a bad day at school or a bad day in my own life but then I get to come here and just get to be among this energy … is, it’s just intoxicating and super fun to be around.”
One thing any “Annie” production also has is a legacy. With legendary Hollywood stars like Shirley Temple, Sarah Jessica Parker, Molly Ringwald and many others reciting the same lines in “Annie’s” history as the TCT kids will on opening night, “Annie” is a show that has quite the reputation. But, Kuczkowski said, this company and these actors are up to the challenge to do the production justice.
“This legacy is amazing,” Kuczkowski said. “I absolutely love working with children’s theatres. This will be my fourth production stage managing but my first one with a youth theatre in Tuscaloosa. So, it’s a super fun opportunity to work with the kids in a community that I’ve been going to school in for four years now. I’m so excited to be in this space and to get to work in the historic Bama Theatre.”
“Annie Jr.” will open its doors at the Bama Theatre on Oct. 4 and run through Oct. 6. Patrons can
to buy tickets, but do not delay, as they are going fast. As far as future shows, theatre lovers can get excited about the TCT’s next production, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which will run April 24-26, 2020. But for now, hold out for a show that is filled with excitement, love, laughter and nostalgia, and is sure to not disappoint.
“I’m just ready to see all the work they’ve done,” Davis said. “These guys are ready and I’m just ready for the audience and the community to see all the work they’ve put in. There’s something for everyone in Annie. I think anybody would enjoy it.”
All images courtesy of Tuscaloosa Children’s Theatre