Annie opens at the Opera House next week. Ciara McDonnell joins the cast in rehearsals to see what it takes to bring the musical to the stage
It’s a humid Friday afternoon in Cork city but I am in New York City, watching a moonlit stroll to the cinema. I’m at Long Yard studios, where the 35-strong cast of Annie are rehearsing ahead of their opening night next Thursday in the Cork Opera House.
The atmosphere is electric – the cast are doing their first full run through of NYC, one of the big song and dance numbers in the show and the results are nothing short of fantastical.
Director Ronan Phelan bounds around, providing notes and uber enthusiasm as theatre legends Nicholas Pound and Hilda Faye provide a backdrop of star quality.
As a person who would quite happily spend her entire life sitting in the front row watching musical theatre, it’s safe to say that it doesn’t get better than this.
After a nationwide search for the eponymous Annie, Cork girls Lasairfhíona de Brún and Faye Herlihy share the title role.
There’s no fear of actor’s rivalry between these two, they have studied together for years with Irene Warren at Performers Academy and giggle together with the assured comfort of good friends.
Annie is a family affair for both girls, whose siblings are musical theatre aficionados. Faye’s sisters Sophie and Charlotte are playing Tessie and Molly, and the last time Annie was in the Opera House Lasairfhíona’s sister Caoimhe played Molly.
The girls expect a few wobbles on opening night, but as Lasairfhíona says, nerves can be a good thing when it comes to performance.
Star of stage and screen Hilda Faye takes the role of Miss Hannigan, and it’s one she does not take lightly.
“I grew up with Annie,” she tells me as we perch on one of the orphanage beds for a chat.
“I was in the Billie Barry Stage School, and I remember when Jacinta White got the role of the first Annie and she went over to the West End. When I left college I auditioned for Miss Hannigan. I was only twenty-two and I got down to the last two and I remember Noel McDonagh saying you’re too young but you’ll play her some day. It’s a bucket list role for me.”
This production of Annie will be different to what we’ve seen before, says Faye.
“I would say it’s darker, more heightened and fantastical. Ronan’s idea is about recreating a child’s fantasy.”
As one of our country’s most accomplished stage actors, Faye is no stranger to large scale productions, and says that Ronan Phelan is a dream to work with.
“I’m a big fan of him, and what he’s doing in the rehearsal room is amazing. He has so many good ideas for the character. It’s a vulnerable place to be but Ronan has made it such a happy cast and makes it a comfortable place to play with our characters.”
Nicholas Pound, AKA Daddy Warbucks agrees.
“Ronan is very particular with the fine detail - it makes the scene seem very real and that the relationship is right between the character.”
Pound has tread the boards of some of the world’s most prestigious stages, and was a nominee for TMA: Best Actor in a Musical for his role in Cats, but this is a role he is delighted to play.
“Daddy Warbucks is a part that I knew I was suited for - it’s a role similar to Captain Von Trapp and Professor Higgins and I know I’m suited for those roles so I’m thrilled to be finally do it.”
For him, the beauty of Daddy Warbucks is in the development of his relationship with Annie.
“The audience will see him as a very tough, focused businesses man and then when Annie is brought into his life it brings out the child in him,” he explains.
“He never really had much of a childhood, his parents died when he was ten, he was a self made man. He never really had a childhood so you see the journey of Daddy Warbucks transition through Annie. When he is telling her about New York, he sees it through a child’s perspective and in a sense, he is painting his love of New York for her.”
Director Ronan Phelan wants to maintain cultural relevance in the musical while still remaining true to the magic that we all love Annie for.
“Coming to Annie today, in 2017 when America is in a national crisis of identity, is vastly different to the Annie of the 1970s. The musical came at a time of post war, post Vietnam where it was
about this idea of believing in America and making it great again,” he tells me.
“Now it’s a slightly more complicated situation and it’s tricky to investigate this in terms of a family show.”
The workaround for Phelan was to dive headfirst into the fantasy of America, and find all the fun and positivity that the American Dream represents.
“There’s some part of the bipartisan Democrat and Republican element in the show, where Roosevelt and Warbucks come together to solve the social problems in America. It’s a very idealised version of how politics works, and how rich people respond to poverty.”
The comparisons between Warbucks and the current president of America are not lost on Phelan, but to him, Annie doesn’t respond to cynicism.
“It would seem mealy mouthed to dampen that spirit of the show, so actually we decided to go further with that idea and explore the idea of fantasy within it.”
So what should we expect from the show? The costume and set design teams have been working around the clock to create a stylised version of New York that children will respond to. Expect a set that is larger than life and filled with colour and vibrancy.
“The remit for the design of the set and costumes is that if we backlit every character you would be able to tell who they were from their outline,” explains Phelan.
The inspiration for the set and costumes comes from the comic strip that the story of Annie was based on, and this super curated look and feel conceals lots of surprises throughout the musical numbers in Annie – I’ve been sworn to secrecy, but smaller audience members are going to adore it.”
The simple message of Annie is that hope is the most important thing, says Ronan Phelan, and that’s what he wants his audiences to walk away with.
“We want people to know that with optimism and believing that every day is a new day, you can change the world tomorrow.” Phelan wants to instil an excitement in theatregoers about musicals.
“I would love them to be excited about the potential of musical theatre beyond representing what they already know – that’s the trick with a show like this.”
Pushing the boundaries of musical theatre is one of the hallmarks of the Cork Opera House.
“The Opera House being back as a producing house is really pushing the bar up because it is really the only theatre on this scale which is producing musical theatre in Ireland.”
“I believe that the stars are aligned for you or they’re not,” says Hilda Faye.
“This is a really high energy production, and we are trying to bring it up to the level that it’s going to really impress people.”
With a stellar leading cast and the production values of an international theatre company there is no doubt that Faye and the cast of Annie are going to impress people.
This production of Annie promises to remind us that in the face of absolute bleakness, you truly are never fully dressed without a smile and charm even the most unenthusiastic theatre-goer into becoming a bonafide fan of musical theatre.
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