CLEARWATER — The sun will come out tomorrow and tonight too, as Francis Wilson Playhouse presents Annie, the Yule-time musical about an 11-year-old orphan.
Annie, which won seven Tony Awards in 197,7 including Best Musical, premieres tonight and runs through Dec. 18.
The show, based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie, tells the Depression-era story of an optimistic redhead who, in an effort to find her real parents, runs away from the Municipal Orphanage on New York's Lower East Side. Along the way, she befriends Sandy, a hapless street dog.
Annie is caught and returned, but her luck changes when Grace Farrell, the secretary of billionaire businessman, Oliver Warbucks, plucks her from the orphanage to spend Christmas at his mansion.
When she nabbed the title role, Madelyn Sarlo, 11, said she jumped on her mother and knocked her over.
"I was obsessed with Annie when I was little," said the sixth-grader, who attends Clearwater Fundamental Middle School. "I liked how she was tough and happy no matter what happened to her."
Madelyn saw Annie performed on stage when she was 6. After she got the video version, she would invite friends over and make them watch it over and over again, she said. She'd sing the musical numbers around the house too. Constantly.
It prepared her well. When the pint-sized actress belts out the songs, you can bet your bottom dollar she means it.
Jason Tucker, a veteran of community theaters in the area, directs and choreographs the show. He currently operates a musical theater production company in North Hollywood, Calif., and, since he can work from anywhere, returned to the area in October to begin working on the production.
He said 65 girls auditioned for the roles of Annie and the orphans. Seven were cast.
And Madelyn's audition?
"I liked her immediately," he said. "She is unflappable. You can throw anything at her and she can handle it. There are times when Kate Gaudet, who plays Miss Hannigan (the tyrant who runs the orphanage) is right there in her face and she never starts laughing, she just gives it right back to her like a professional.
"I also describe her (Madelyn) as honest — it's a director's term. When she's on stage, you don't get a sense that she's acting; it just feels very natural."
He cast the musical with 24 actors. Ensemble members perform a variety of roles.
"Typically, this musical is done with a much bigger cast, but my goal was to have 24 individuals, each starring in the show. Everyone plays someone with a name and has to think about their character and what he or she should be doing in every scene," Tucker said.
The only one who didn't have to audition for a part was Hobo, a 4-year-old terrier mix playing the role of Sandy.
Like his character, Hobo had a tough start in life.
"My mom found him floating down a storm drain when he was a puppy," said his owner, Katrina Campanello, a hairstylist who works at a Safety Harbor studio. Tucker's mother is one of Campanello's clients and thought Hobo would be perfect for the role. The shaggy dog was cast.
Quiet, gentle and friendly, Hobo seems to take direction well — with bribes of chicken nuggets, that is.
"He keeps wondering why we call him Sandy," Campanello explained.
She has foregone grooming Hobo for the past few months so he looks homeless, like a stray. And she says she's not worried that he might do his business during the show.
"I can't imagine it, he's very well trained," she said, "but I do keep checking the Christmas tree just in case."
Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at [email protected]