Imagine Northeast Iowa

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"Annie," Community Theater at its Best
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"Annie," Community Theater at its Best

I must admit I was leery when I was asked to be music director for Sumner Community Theater's production of Annie. I've suffered through some miserable amateur productions, both as an audience member and a participant. Watching a show with mediocre acting, off-tune singing, shoddy costumes, and crappy sets, or working with back-biting, power-hungry egomaniacs trying to build themselves up while tearing everyone around them down is not my idea of a fun way to spend my summer vacation. But my husband thought I should do it and that it would be good for me. After more than thirty years, I've come to trust his judgement and thought, "Why not?"

I took a deep breath, and took the plunge into the world of small town community theater. It turns out my husband was totally correct. (See, honey, I put it in print!) With an efficient army of volunteers, expert leadership in director Kimberly Sommermeyer, totally fun dance moves by choreographer Sabrina Schmitt, and brilliant local talent, we put on a show that rivaled the productions I've seen at the Civic Center in Des Moines. And I had the time of my life during the entire process. A watershed of talent from fourteen Northeaste Iowa towns, including Fredericksburg, New Hampton, Fayette, and Tripoli participated, and families willingly clocked tons of miles driving to and from rehearsal three to four times a week. The youngest cast member was four; the oldest, over seventy years old, including thirty orphans and a cast of around fifty.

This was a huge undertaking, and I was pleased to see it come together like a well-oiled machine. I decided from the git go to remain calm, have a positive attitude, and to diffuse any conflicts. I had zero toleration for bad-mouthing or bullying, and would put my foot down when necessary. (And that was just the adults, wink, wink...) I was also determined to have fun, and boy, did we ever! We'd get to laughing so hard, liquid would flow from our eyes (and from other unmentionable parts of our bodies...) I also instructed the cast to stay grounded and calm, no matter what craziness was going on around them. The orphans were very responsive to this direction. Whenever they would start bouncing off the walls as we got closer to performances, I'd say, “Get grounded.” They'd immediately calm down and get focused. It was totally awesome, like I had 30 little minions all my own. At dress rehearsal, I had a pep talk with them before we started, and reminded them that they had to stay grounded in order to go from being a fifty watt bulb to a 5,000 watt bulb, and one little blonde sweetie looks up at me and asks, “Like you?” Out of the mouths of babes...I tell ya, I LOVE THESE KIDS!

By opening night, I knew it was going to be an exceptionally wonderful show. My rock star orphans were ready to strut their stuff, and the rest of the cast had their songs and lines down pat. Singing and acting is easy: memorizing lines is HARD. We had three sold-out shows, and folks were turned away at the door. The excitement in the air was palpable. I planted my parents and husband right in the front row to guarantee loud laughing during the funny parts. Our family is legendary for being really loud laughers, and I knew they wouldn't let me down. I'm probably one of the loudest laughing music directors you're ever going to see, though I will only laugh if it's truly funny. I'll never stoop to pity laughing. I have my standards. I play my own arrangement of an overture, since I was tired of staying on book.

It goes well, the curtain opens, and we're transported to 1933 and the world of Little Orphan Annie. Little Molly (Natalie Lobeck) really hams it up in front of the live audience, and Annie (Sarah Smith) is breathtakingly poignant as she sings “Maybe.” Miss Hannigan (Anita Burkett) gets huge laughs as she weaves her drunken way onto the stage, yelling at the orphans, and putting the moves on Mr. Bundles (Robert Metcalf). Then the orphans stomp into action on “It's A Hard Knock Life,” and the entire audience is blown away. My husband immediately moved to the edge of his seat and stayed there. I was blessed enough to receive this powerful blast of exuberant youthful energy full on as I sat at their feet and played my heart out on that keyboard. It was a beautiful moment, one of the best in my life.

 

 

*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.

The rest of the show was a blissful blur as each cast member had their moment to shine. Daddy Warbucks (Scott Duffus) was blustering and domineering, yet endearingly sweet and funny, with touchingly heartfelt vocals on “NYC and “Something Was Missing.” Grace (Kimberly Pont) was warm and motherly, singing her solos with a beautifully trained mezzo-soprano. Rooster (Wes Hicock) was outstanding, with perfect comic timing and a gorgeous voice. His side-kick, Lily (Deb Smith), was ditzy and funny and adorable. All of the minor roles were strong, which lent a welcome continuity to the show. Even more amazing, the huge German Shepherd playing Sandy (Dirk) finally got over his separation anxiety once we let his “mutti” (director, Kimberly Sommermeyer) be on stage with him disguised as a homeless person, though he was nearly upstaged by Kimberly's other dog, Bennie, a fat little min pin/chihuahua that was carried through the auditorium in a fishing net during the dog catching scene.

The music director laughed really loud at that part. All in all, it was one of the best summers I've had in a long time, and I really miss seeing this amazing group of people several times a week. Natalie Lobeck's mom reports that Natalie cried every night the week following the show, missing all her Annie friends. I know for fact she's not the only one. (Sniff.) But...there's always next year...and this belly-laughing music director has already cleared her calender for next summer. LEAPIN' LIZARDS!

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