For the fourth time in his 23 years as Valley Youth Theatre’s producing artistic director, Bobb Cooper has taken a razor to his suave (now silver) hair and donned a tuxedo to reprise his role as Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks.
On Friday, he and more than three dozen young actors from across the Valley will take Center Stage at the Herberger Theater in Phoenix for “Annie The Musical,” running June 15-July 1.
Cooper has produced, directed and played the role of the charitable billionaire since VYT’s first production of “Annie” on Oct. 31, 1997. Cooper says he never wants to take a role from children, but when he couldn’t find anybody to audition for it, he stepped up, and it’s since become a tradition looked forward to by cast members and patrons about every seven years. To prepare, he always shaves his head.
“Annie” was the first production VYT ever presented at the Herberger; VYT last performed “Annie” during the 2010-2011 season.
Also for the fourth time, Karol Cooper, VYT’s resident costume designer, will get into the act in the role of the cruel Miss Hannagan. Unlike her husband, she auditioned for the role and won it strictly on merit. Word has it that after seeing her in rehearsals, no one can imagine anyone doing a better job.
But no doubt, the real star of the show is Annie, the resourceful redhead who captures everyone’s heart. Abandoned on the doorstep of a New York City orphanage and determined to find her birth parents, Annie escapes and has a series of adventures: she adopts a lovable dog named Sandy, makes friends with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, foils Miss Hannigan’s evil schemes and ultimately finds a new home with Warbucks.
The plucky street urchin originally appeared in a comic strip, “Little Orphan Annie,” drawn by cartoonist Harold Gray. The musical, which first opened on Broadway in 1977, is the winner of seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and features beloved songs including “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” and “Tomorrow.”
In VYT’s new production, Annie is played by Mia McFarland, making her VYT debut. Mia is 12 and in the seventh grade at South Valley Junior High School in Gilbert. Previously she has appeared as July in “Annie Jr.” at Greasepaint Youtheatre, Mayor Matilda in “All Shook Up” at Actor’s Youth Theater and Virginia in “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” at East Valley Children’s Theatre.
Recalling one scene with the president and his cabinet after the market crash of the Great Depression, Mia says, “We all come together and sing, ‘Tomorrow,’ like we’re saying we can overcome anything the future brings. I feel like that could be happening today.”
Almost 40 young actors from across the Valley round out the cast, including VYT veterans Anand Khalsa as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Brandon Brown as Miss Hannigan’s younger brother Rooster, and Isabella Conner as Rooster’s girlfriend Lily St. Regis.
An avid magician, Anand is a high school senior who also takes classes at Phoenix College and aspires to be a professional actor. “Annie” is his seventh show at VYT. Others include “The Jungle Book,” “The Wiz” and “Willy Wonka.”
“Portraying a real person opens up tremendous opportunities to a performer, but it brings a certain amount of weight and responsibility,” says Anand. To prepare for the role, he read FDR’s biography and found Roosevelt “had no lack of sensitivity or compassion. That’s why he was considered ‘the eternal optimist.’ He believed that no matter how grave some short-term results of decisions were, you had to focus on benefits in the long run.”
A sophomore at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Brandon also plans to pursue acting as a career. “Annie” is his third VYT show. He previously appeared in “West Side Story” and “Peter Pan.”
How does Brandon feel about playing a villain? “I’m enjoying playing a not-so-nice guy, because I never get to,” he says. “It’s fun to step out of my comfort zone, and Rooster gets to mess around and have a good time.”
Isabella is an 18-year-old senior at Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics in Phoenix. She plans to attend New York University in the fall and hopes to pursue a career in musical theater. “Annie” is her ninth VYT show. Others include “Little Women,” “Shrek” and “Grease.”
And then there’s 8-year-old Jake, a goldendoodle playing the endearing mutt Sandy. He didn’t respond to a request for an interview, but a reliable source had this to say: “He’s loving every minute of rehearsals with this great cast and crew!” Rescued just six months ago, Jake loves naps and is drawn to babies, strollers and wheelchairs, which makes his human mom, Laura Johnson, think he probably wanted to be a service dog all his life.
Tickets to “Annie The Musical” are on sale now, so rest assured — the sun will come out tomorrow. Annie gave her word.
If you go: June 15-July 1; 7 p.m. Thursdays; 7 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. $20.50-$39.50. Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe St., Phoenix. 602-252-8497 or herbergertheater.org