'Annie' brings hopeful message to stage

082618 Annie
1 of 3

The cast in the production of "Annie" rehearses a scene for the upcoming performance. The play features Addi Whidbee (center) in the lead role. Also, performing are Richard Merrick (left) and Mariah Schierer (right). Performances begin Thursday at the Performing Arts Center on the campus of College of the Albemarle.

082618 Annie
082618 Annie

By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The infectious optimism of the popular musical “Annie” comes to the stage at College of The Albemarle’s Performing Arts Center in Elizabeth City this week.

“This show makes me smile,” said Jeffrey Emmerich, who heads the drama program at COA and is directing “Annie.” “It’s just a happy show. There’s a lot in the world that’s unhappy, so it’s nice sometimes just to do something that’s happy.”

Addi Whidbee, 9, who is making her musical theater debut in the title role, said she expects audiences will enjoy the show’s happy ending.

“I think this is so great,” Whidbee said of the hopeful story the show tells. “They’re going to be crying with joy.”

Emmerich, who is in his eighth year as a full-time faculty member at COA, has been trying to bring “Annie” to COA’s PAC stage since 2015.

During much of that time the show has been touring nationally, which has meant local theater groups have not had access to it. But the touring companies are taking a break and the publisher has released “Annie” for local productions -- and Emmerich is taking advantage of this opportunity to present the musical at COA.

“I had seen it on Broadway, but I had never seen it done anywhere else,” Emmerich said.

Emmerich cast “Annie” in July and rehearsals started in July. Of the 52 cast members, 23 are children 8- to 14-years-old. The children include Annie herself, a half-dozen other “speaking orphans” and a chorus of 16 “singing orphans.”

The cast also includes a 4-year-old dog, Fletcher, portraying the canine character Sandy.

“They always say if you want trouble in theater work with children or animals, and we have both,” Emmerich said.

But he said the children in the cast have been wonderful to work with.

“There is not a bad apple among them,” Emmerich said. “This is the best group of kids I have ever worked with.”

And Fletcher has been a great dog for the part, he added.

The dog is onstage for about 30 percent of the play.

“He is in a fair number of scenes,” Emmerich said.

Five families auditioned their dogs for the role of Sandy but Fletcher had the right look for the role, Emmerich said.

Fletcher was a good choice for the role because he’s mild-natured, enjoys being around all the children and reacts well to an audience, Emmerich said.

And audiences return the favor.

“The audience just goes nuts over an animal coming out on stage,” Emmerich said. “They just love it.”

But the unquestionable start of the show, of course, is the title character, and Emmerich is delighted to have Addi Whidbee in that role.

“She has a very strong voice,” Emmerich said. “We a lot of kids that were just excellent. We could have cast any number of them. But there was just something about her belting out ‘Tomorrow.’ We just had to cast her.”

The audition process for the role of Annie focused on “Tomorrow” because it’s such an important musical number in the show, well-known even to audience members who have never seen “Annie” before, and because it’s a challenging song for a child to sing.

“We had to know that Annie could sing ‘Tomorrow,’” Emmerich explained. Addi’s precise pitch and remarkable range made her rendition of the song a standout, according to Emmerich.

Addi’s mother, Kelly Whidbee, noted Addi was born into a singing family and has always enjoyed singing but really has not been old enough to do musical theater until now.

Addi and her father sang a song from “Annie” in church a couple of years ago and she was eager to audition for the role when she learned COA would be presenting the musical.

“I have always liked to sing ‘Tomorrow’ and I loved watching ‘Annie,’” Addi said.

Kelly Whidbee said that while Addi has watched a couple of different versions of Annie, she was really captivated by the 2014 movie.

“When that version came out she watched that over and over and over again,” she said.

Addi said she has enjoyed rehearsing the show and is looking forward to having audiences come and see it.

“It’s been really fun,” she said.

Addi plans to audition for the Center Players at Arts of The Albemarle and is eager to continue her adventures in musical theater.

Emmerich said Addi’s older sister, Alana Houston, a veteran of several COA musicals, also is in “Annie,” and her pride, as she has watched her younger sister from backstage, has been palpable.

“She was just overwhelmed — proud,” Emmerich said. “I think she is proud as she can be.”

The musical director of “Annie” is Gloria Emmerich.

Other featured performers in the musical include Mariah Schierer as Grace Farrell, Nathan Schierer as Bert Healy and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Merrick as Oliver Warbucks, LaShaun Winslow as Rooster, and Isabelle Grace Wilson as Lily.

According to Emmerich, “Annie” is based roughly on the ‘Oliver Twist’ story, “and I think a little of ‘Anne of Green Gables’ is mixed up in there.”

The show’s message, Emmerich said, is one of hope.

“It’s certainly hope,” Emmerich said. “There’s a lot of hope. And she’s such a positive, upbeat little person.”

No matter what happened to Annie, Emmerich noted, “she always hoped for the best.”

Tickets are available online at www.albemarle.edu/pac and by phone at 1-800-335-9050 or (252) 335-9050.

“Annie” opens Thursday at 10 a.m. Additional showings are Friday at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; Sept. 9 at 2 p.m.; Sept. 13 at 10 a.m.; Sept. 14 at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.; Sept. 15 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; and Sept. 16 at 2 p.m.

Advanced ticket prices for shows at the PAC during the 2018-2019 season are $19.50 for adults, $18.50 for senior and military, $16.50 for groups of 10 or more, and $9.50 for students. All tickets are $2 more at the door.

“Annie” is being presented by arrangement with Music Theater International.