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Kids bring 'Annie' to life

It isn’t easy to get 40 kids to memorize their lines, belt out Broadway songs and trot across the stage at proper intervals. Harder still, if there are just four weeks to pull it off.

But director Rebekka Handschke manages all this and more with a pint-sized cast big on talent in a rousing rendition of the musical Annie. The play, the result of a month-long summer workshop, is slated for its final two performances at the Whidbey Playhouse this weekend and tickets are going fast.

In this shortened version, dubbed “Annie, Jr.,” all the roles are filled by children and a few young teens. And many of the actors, at the tender ages of 8 and 9, already appear to be old pros, giving snappy comebacks, projecting their voices to the back of the house and generally having fun on stage — the kind of fun that pulls the audience along for the one-hour-long musical ride.

The star of the show is Annie, played by both Shani King and Madison Michaels, on alternate nights. A close, scene-stealing second is Miss Farrell, the efficient secretary of Daddy Warbucks, (Keath Worley) the gazillionaire curmudgeon who ends up adopting Annie from her scruffy orphanage.

Miss Farrell, always proper in pearls but filled with spunk, is played on alternate nights by Telena Kelln and Jennifer Rodgers.

On the night Telena filled Farrell’s no-nonsense shoes, she managed a masterful illusion of a no-nonsense professional woman, marching about the stage with a brief case nearly as large as she is.

“It was fun but also kind of scary,” Telena said after the show.

At just 8 and a half years old, she picked apart her performance.

“When I went on, I forgot lots of things and I said some of my lines wrong,” said the Oak Harbor soon-to-be-third-grader.

Not that anyone would notice.

In fact, “Annie, Jr.” moves with a quick tempo that sweeps minor missteps to the side. Some of the singing can be a bit off key and the occasional line is swallowed by a first-time performer with the jitters.

But mostly the musical is fast-moving and filled with fun.

And there are some great one-liners. After Oliver Warbucks gets off the phone with Mrs. Roosevelt and agrees to host a dinner for the president and his wife he yells after his loyal secretary, “Grace, find out what Democrats eat!”

Little Orphan Annie, the curly-headed comic strip character with circles for eyes and a cute red dress, has been part of America’s popular culture since the 1920’s, reaching its peak during the Great Depression. Not surprisingly, many Americans in the 1930s longed to believe in a down-on-her-luck orphan who suddenly found a father and struck it rich.

It was a collective dream come true. Still, the comic strip seemed more relic than relevant when “Annie” became a Broadway musical in 1977.

Sugar-coated but catchy songs such as “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow,” and “Hard-Knock Life,” won audience hearts yet again. A film version was made in 1982 with Albert Finney playing Warbucks, the famously bald-headed tough guy with the heart of gold.

On Broadway, battles over who should play Annie made national headlines. One famous alum who once wore the red, curly wig is Sarah Jessica Parker, who now heats up cable television with “Sex in the City.”

The musical is set during the Depression and there’s a hard-scrabble quality to some of its more unsavory characters, such as Lily and Rooster. Played by Taya Boonstra and Geoff Worley, the pair impersonate Annie’s parents to collect a “50 thousand smackers” reward.

Taya as Lily is especially entertaining. She brings down the house when she fans her hands, singing about how she and Rooster are going get rich in “Easy Street.”

Taya, 9, who hails from Coupeville has already been in two plays and she’s just entering fourth grade. Her comic sensibilities played well on stage — and at home.

“She came home and said ‘Mom, I’m playing the floozy,’” said Taya’s mother, Susan Boonstra with a laugh.

Taya’s brother, Tyler, also has a part in the play. Indeed, siblings made up a big chunk of the Annie, Jr., cast list.

For director Handschke, Annie, Jr., has been a lot of work, but even more fun.

“Kids are more free than adults,” said Handschke. “They’ll do pretty much anything. And anything that can happen will happen with kids on the stage.”

During the opening-night performance there was a quite a bit of stage business done with a locket that refused to close around Annie’s neck. But the actors kept going nonetheless.

This is Handschke’s second time directing a summer youth workshop at the Whidbey Playhouse. Her parents live in Oak Harbor and Handschke, 30, enjoys visiting in the summer. The rest of the year she is studying for a theater degree at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande.

After the opening night performance, many cast members came up to Handschke offering her hugs and thanks.

Meanwhile, parents, friends and other well-wishers crowded around the cast and snacked on pieces of cake. The hubbub of the theater was in the air and most of the actors were all smiles.

Shani King, 8, one of the two girls who play Annie, said she would like to become an actress when she grows up.

Fortunately for playgoers, she already is.

About ‘Annie’

What: Annie, Jr. musical

Where: Whidbey Playhouse

When: Friday and Saturday, Aug. 8 and 9 at 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for youth

For more information contact the box office at 679-2237 or visit the web site at www.whidbeyplayhouse.com.

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