CORALVILLE — “We have a show,” director Elizabeth Tracey exclaimed as the cast collapsed after a recent run-through rehearsal for “Annie.”
“I’m going to give you a prize if you don’t yawn,” she told one of the 13 little orphan actresses. “It’s not the end of the day (onstage), even though it is in real life.”
City Circle Theatre Company is bringing the bright and bouncy holiday musical to the Coralville Performing Arts Center from Friday (12/6) to Dec. 15.
No one is brighter and bouncier at an after-rehearsal roundtable interview than Camila Koch of Iowa City, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Borlaug Elementary in Coralville, who is playing the title role in her very first play.
She nailed her audition.
“Her voice was phenomenal,” said Tracey, 58, of Iowa City, who also serves as artistic director for City Circle and its Young Footliters program. “ ... It’s just so difficult to sing Annie. The range just has to be full-out belt. And she came in and did it, and I never feel like she’s straining.
“And then what I liked about it was her lack of too much training, because there’s a spunky, natural, just an Annie kind of energy that I thought was so perfect for the part, which brings surprises.”
“I’m tiny,” Koch noted.
“So that ended up being interesting,” Tracey added. “Because she was so little, it affected some of my other casting. She’s definitely one of the smallest Annies. It’s cute being so little, though. It makes Annie more innocent than in some of the versions you’ve seen.”
Bigger, taller Annies make the character seem too mature, Tracey explained.
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“I’m not mature,” Koch chimed in, making everyone laugh. “I mean, maybe a little, but not really.”
She’s loving “kind of like everything” about stepping into the rags-to-riches Depression-era story of Little Orphan Annie of comic strip fame, who gets plucked from her hard-knock life in a rundown New York City orphanage to spend Christmas at billionaire Oliver Warbucks’s mansion. Just when her wonder and awe have melted his frosty exterior, Warbucks (Larry Newman) agrees to help her locate her long-lost parents, offering a big reward to the couple who can prove the child is their daughter.
Annie’s good fortune vexes boozy orphanage matron Miss Hannigan (Mary Denmead), and before long, Hannigan’s miscreant brother, Rooster (Robert Kemp), shows up with his floozy girlfriend, Lily St. Regis (Nikki Scheel). They’re hatching a plan to pose as Annie’s parents, claim the reward, and dump the child en route to Easy Street.
At Annie’s side is trusty Sandy, a scruffy stray dog she found when she escaped from the orphanage. Canine and child rescued each other from the city’s mean streets before Annie’s luck changed for good.
Risky, a 7-year-old golden retriever, is a second-generation Sandy. His late mother took her star turn in the role seven years ago in Iowa City Community Theatre’s production. Risky has had obedience training, so she doesn’t bark, and in rehearsal, she’s been lifting her paw to Annie, making everyone go ooh and aah.
“It’s unbelievably adorable,” said Newman, 57, of North Liberty. The late W.C. Fields warned actors to “never work with animals or children,” but “Annie” has both, and Newman couldn’t be happier.
“I feel like I have to bring my A game every night,” he said. “Everyone in this room is just so incredibly talented. It’s exciting. Every scene comes up and it’s just really a fantastic group. The orphans are fantastic, the ensemble, the voices — everything. It really, really is a fantastically talented group.
“Camila is an absolute joy,” he continued. “It’s absolutely so much fun to work with her. She’s so professional and so kind to everyone. And so talented and works so hard. I never have to worry about our entrance. She’s there, she knows what she’s doing.”
“All the kids are like that,” Tracey added. “From day one, I wanted them to be treated like adults. I work with Young Footliters, and this is a different game. This is City Circle. You’re with adults now, and you have to behave better than the adults.”
Denmead, 53, of West Branch, was actually a little scared to play the least-well-behaved adult, Miss Hannigan, because “she’s the villain,” adding that she sees everybody else as villains, and considers herself “the victim.”
“I was worried at first and then walked into that first rehearsal, and the kids — everything Larry said is spot-on. This is such a strong cast. But this group of kids are so creative and so present. Everybody’s got an idea and they’ve all fleshed out these characters so fully that it’s like a playground,” Denmead said. “They have helped me to find (Miss Hannigan) because I have to be this silly pain in the neck in their playground — the buzz kill, as it were. ...
“I can’t imagine having more fun than I am right now. It’s just so good.”
Kemp, 34, of Iowa City, is bringing a smarter attitude to Miss Hannigan’s ne’er-do-well brother, Rooster.
“He’s someone who’s drawn to a life of crime — not because he has to — because I think if he devoted half of the energy and effort into a legal life, he would probably be very successful,” Kemp said. “But he doesn’t do that, because the illegal nature, the thrill of it, is what keeps him in this cycle of jail and petty crime. It brings him joy to swindle people and feel smart about doing that ...
“It would be easy to play him as stupid I suppose, but I don’t think he’s stupid. I think he’s just drawn to the thrill of the life of crime, as opposed to just working a regular job.”
Arm and arm in this life is Lily St. Regis, whether she likes it or not.
“I think if she could have had things her way, she would have been a trophy wife,” said Scheel, 37, of Clarence. “But it didn’t work out that way for her in the long run. I think she’s probably been through a series of Roosters in her life.
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“She’s such a fun character to play. I didn’t even really think about auditioning for this role because I’ve never been a villain — ever ... I’d never seen myself playing a villain, and she’s the funnest villain,” Scheel said.
“That’s what I liked about you,” Tracey said. “You have a good mix of not playing her sweet. All of you,” she added, looking at Rooster and Hannigan, too, “I think the way you do the villains is comedy, so you have to be careful not to make it so mean.”
“That’s why ‘Easy Street’ is so good,” Koch said. “You guys are all the villains, and it’s all comedy, because all the villains are hilarious.”
Even though the show is based on a comic strip that debuted in 1924 and is set in the Depression, its message continues to resonate.
“Whenever I see Hooverville (in the show), I think we can really relate, even though (those now in power) keep talking about how there’s no unemployment and everything is perfect and wonderful, but I think it’s just a strong reminder that it wasn’t too long ago, and that the economy is fragile,” Tracey said.
“And I think that it really reminds you that we need to take care of each other. ... And I think that’s a good message for today.”
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• What: City Circle Theatre Company: “Annie”
• Where: Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, 1301 Fifth St., Coralville
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• When: Friday (12/6) to Dec. 15; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
• Tickets: $29 premium, $24 adults, $19 ages 55 and over; $19 students, $14 ages 10 and under; $10 student rush Saturday (12/7) beginning at 6:30 p.m.; center box office, (319) 248-9370, coralvillearts.org or Coralville Recreation Center
• Extra: Cash and gift card donations accepted for the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center