Regardless of the weather forecast, the sun will come out tomorrow, and every weekend through mid-December, as Theatre Cedar Rapids brings back “Annie” for the holidays.
It’s the fourth time TCR has staged the spunky musical, beginning in 1984 at the Paramount Theatre, then in 1990 at TCR, 2009 at TCR-Lindale, and this year, back at TCR in downtown Cedar Rapids. Putting it on repeat suits director Jim Kern just fine.
“It should come back every 10 years, because of the wonderful opportunities for performers and a new generation of children,” said Kern, who played Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks in the 1990 production.
“It’s become a beloved staple of the Broadway repertoire,” he said. “There are more and more parents and grandparents who want to introduce their children to a show that is kid-friendly that actually occurs at Christmas — and those are few and far between.”
For those who question the decision, he’s quick to point that “some people go to ‘The Nutcracker’ every single year.”
Based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” the stage version is celebrating its 50th anniversary of spreading joy and sunshine, with a touch of drama and a sleighful of showstopping songs.
It’s the enduring, endearing tale of a plucky child full of optimism at the height of the Great Depression, when optimism was in short supply. Despite living in an orphanage run by a woman sick and tired of the little girls in her charge, Annie holds tight to a hope borne through a note and part of a locket from her parents, promising to come back for her.
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“She keeps waiting and waiting and waiting,” Kern said. “It’s been 11 years, but she just keeps holding out the hope — and that tomorrow is always a new day.”
She also “knows how to grab a brass ring when it’s presented to her,” he added. Annie happens to be there when Warbucks’ secretary, Grace Farrell, comes to the orphanage saying the billionaire wants to open his home to one of the children at the holidays.
The perky preteen wins over Farrell, then Warbucks’ household staff, and eventually, Warbucks himself, as she lights up their lives.
Evie Kunz, 11, of Cedar Rapids, charmed Kern and the directing team. Out of 123 girls who auditioned, Evie landed the coveted title role.
“Evie was the actress. She was the one who was more authentic in her spunk, her sassiness. She won us over in the reading part. She also has a pretty good set of lungs on her,” Kern said. “She just is a delight. She’s playful and spontaneous, and she was the one who projected largely the personality that we’re looking for.”
“This is my first play, and I’m super-excited,” said Kunz, a sixth-grader at Regis Middle School. She auditioned at the urging of her vocal coach and parents. It wasn’t a hard sell. “I wanted to do something for my own (fun), for once, instead of basketball every night.”
She’s not completely new to the theatrical realm, however, having attended local summer performing arts camps. And she doesn’t have to look far to embrace Annie’s characteristics.
“She is a spunky little girl (who) likes to be happy all the time and is not afraid to show off. She just does whatever she wants and doesn’t care what anybody else thinks. That’s me most of the time,” Kunz said with a giggle. “I like to be happy, stay happy and be myself.”
The one who tries to rein her in and the one who wants to set her free are married in real life.
Marcia Hughes, 55, is relishing her role as orphan wrangler Miss Hannigan, while her husband, Scot Hughes, 53, is stretching his wings as Warbucks. They even met doing theater in Ottumwa 30 years ago, married the following year, and moved to Cedar Rapids 26 years ago.
“I’m not a song and dance guy,” said Scot Hughes, a theater major at Central College who works as an air traffic controller at The Eastern Iowa Airport. “I haven’t been in a musical where I sang, in 30 years, and it’s been over 10 since I’ve been in a musical at all. ... Singing isn’t my strong suit, but I’m endearing.”
After everyone gathered around the table stopped laughing, Marcia Hughes said: “He’s learning how to breathe like a singer,” which is a big step in the right direction. He also has to brush off his dancing shoes for the show. That’s not as big of a stretch, considering a 2013 video of his father/daughter wedding dance was viewed online more than 300,000 times in three days. (Take a peek at Thegazette.com/2013/09/05/father-daughter-wedding-dance-goes-viral)
Visually, Hughes fits the role better than Kern did in 1990.
“I was a little surprised that I got cast,” Kern said, “because I was not large, I wasn’t bald, and they basically said, ‘We’re going to go with a Fred Astaire approach,’ because I could dance to a degree. I never ever, ever looked like Daddy Warbucks, whereas Scot Hughes (is) tall, he’s broad-shouldered, he’s bald — he’s the epitome of what everybody expects Daddy Warbucks to look like.”
Marcia Hughes, however, is known on Corridor stages for her vocal prowess. She’s delighted to capture another musical “villain” role at TCR, having played Ursula the sea witch in “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” in 2016 and would-be killer Sara Jane Moore in “Assassins” in 2017.
Unlike Miss Hannigan, Hughes loves the 13 little girls who vex her character.
“They’re wonderful,” she said. “Truly, these ‘rotten orphans’ are awesome. They’ve just been a delightful group. ... They all bring very unique personalities to their roles as the orphans, which is fun for Miss Hannigan.”
Her character may come off as a boozy down-and-outer, but Hughes said she’s really “just misunderstood.”
“She’s a lonely woman stuck baby-sitting, with no man in her life,” Hughes said. “But, in the era of the ’30s, she has a job. She’s a woman making her own way. I think that’s kind of impressive. ... But she’s lonely and frustrated and angry about the way things are, and tired of baby-sitting all these kids.” Yet, when a scheme to defraud Warbucks goes awry, she’s quick to protect Annie from those who mean her harm.
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All of the action is wrapped up in a snazzy, jazzy musical score and choreography befitting the era. Even Bret Gothe’s set design is “over-the-top grand,” Kern said, and plays off the TCR architecture dating back to that same period.
“TCR is pulling out all the stops for Christmas,” Kern said. “We want this to be beautiful, warm, and a very special gift to the community for helping us come back so well from the flood and helping us sustain the organization.”
WHERE: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
WHEN: Friday (11/17) to Dec. 10; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS: $40 adults, $31 students, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org