By Sara Boyd, WCCO

It is my firm belief that sometime in the course of everyone’s childhood, they had some form of an “Annie” moment. Whether it’s singing “Tomorrow” into a hairbrush in front of your bedroom mirror or crooning “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” while being forced to do chores, there’s just something about the musical “Annie” that has the power to stick with the children who watch it.

Perhaps it’s more of a growing-up-female thing, but whatever the root, the classic story of “Annie” is one that everyone can at the very least connect to. It’s timeless, ageless and yes, always entertaining. Whether it’s the first time you’ve seen the movie or your seventh time seeing the show, “Annie” is sure to pull at your heartstrings and instill inspiration to never give up.

It’s a bit shocking to learn, then, that in 45 years, this is the first time the Children’s Theatre Company has produced the show. As a fitting close to the 45th anniversary season, “Annie” will debut to Twin Cities audiences on Friday. Joining the cast is longtime actor Lee Mark Nelson, who has been in countless productions in the Twin Cities and beyond. Nelson said he’s eager to be a part of “Annie,” and just as excited to be playing the role of Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks.

New to the Children’s Theatre Company — and Minnesota — Denver native Shawnee Elliott, 11, will get the chance to not only play the starring role of little orphan Annie but also spend some time as Pepper. Elliott, who will share the role of Annie with Megan Fischer (who has performed at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts) nabbed the role during an open casting call at the Mall of America.

Between their dress rehearsals and final preparations, Nelson and Elliott took a few moments out of their busy schedule to share a few tidbits about what the highly anticipated debut of “Annie” has in store.

How familiar were you two with the show before being cast?

Elliott: I just watched the movie and I was in love with it when I was, like, 7, because I always wanted a locket and I just thought it was really funny. I’ve always been in love with this musical.

Nelson:  When did I know “Annie?” Everybody knows the basic story of “Annie” but I had actually never seen the musical or the movie or anything. But I got the call saying, would you like to audition for “Annie” and I thought, well jeez, maybe. It was my wife actually who has wanted to play “Annie” since she was 7 years old. So she was like, “You’ve got to do ‘Annie,’ you’ve got to be in ‘Annie!'” But I love it. It’s a great story. People love it. It’s so warm and the optimism, it’s just a fantastic story.

So your wife really convinced you to be a part of this?

Nelson: Yes, exactly. And my daughters. I have two daughters and they were really excited about me playing Daddy Warbucks, too.

Mark, what about the Daddy Warbucks character was appealing to you?

Nelson: I think Daddy Warbucks is … it’s a pretty incredible story in terms of a man who has pretty much … all he ever cared about is making money and he’s completely cut off from people and doesn’t even know how to communicate with people. It’s fun. His first scene with Annie, he doesn’t know how to talk to her, he doesn’t know how to do anything with her. It’s a complete loss. I think it’s a great journey from that to … well, I don’t want to spoil the show or anything. The other thing about him is that he’s never had to worry about getting anything, he can buy anything. So suddenly he buys this girl a silver locket, thinking that’s it, and she’ll be his and he’ll adopt her and that will be that. And it turns out she doesn’t want that. It’s the first time, I think, when he says “I’ll find your parents,” it’s the first time that he thinks “I’m going to do something for someone else and matter of fact, it’s going to kill me because it means I can’t be with her anymore.” It’s a great journey for this person, which is what I love in acting.

Shawnee, you auditioned for the role at the open casting call at Mall of America and not only beat out several others auditioning for “Annie” but snagged the lead role. What was that experience like for you?

Elliott: (laughs) Ooh, well, it’s absolutely fantastic because I’ve always kind of wanted to play Annie and I finally get to at a wonderful theatre and that’s really, really great. I went to the Mall of America, and they had us sing “Tomorrow,” and then they had us go up on the Best Buy Rotunda and sing “Tomorrow.”

(Anne Schopen, of the Children’s Theatre Company, adds that the full audition process was first behind closed doors with the casting director and the director of the show with about 20 girls at a time. After that, the girls were asked to perform on the Rotunda stage. “We knew these girls couldn’t be shy about getting up there, they needed to be brave,” she said.)

You’re from Denver? Is Mark and everyone helping you get accustomed to Minnesota?

Elliott: Yes, they are welcoming me so sweetly. And I’m so thankful to be apart of this cast because I get to meet a lot of new people. So I’m not like, “umm, yeah.” (Elliott adds that she’s been living in Minnesota for about a month.)

This is the first time in its 45-year history that CTC has produced “Annie,” can you tell us anything about the show itself and what Director Peter Rothstein has in store for audiences?

Elliott: Well, Peter Rothstein is one of the most amazing directors you could ever come across because he makes you think about your character and I think that people will really enjoy the show because it’s “Annie,” I mean, who doesn’t love “Annie?” The whole cast is great. You’ll be crying in some of these scenes and laughing your head off in some of the others. So come buy your tickets, because they’re worth it.

Nelson: This is actually the first time I worked at the Children’s Theatre and it’s been a real pleasure to get to know the company members — the actors who are regulars here — and to get to know their work. That’s one of the things that I’ve just loved is watching these actors wearing eight different hats in a show. One minute they’re a homeless person under a bridge and the next, they’re a minister or dressing in drag or they’re a policeman or President Roosevelt. They do it so seamlessly and so, so beautifully. They’re just great, great people here. That, I think, is a lot of fun. For people who know the Children’s Theatre, I think it’s just really fun to see these actors, you know, you’ll see them show up eight different times in eight different costumes and it’s just fun to watch an actor do that kind of work.

It was also noted that this is the single most-requested production among CTC followers. Does that add pressure at all for you guys?

Nelson:  I didn’t know that. (laughs)

Elliott: (laughs) Me either.

(Schopen chimes in — “It’s been Annie and the Wizard of Oz that are probably two of our most requested productions.” She said Rothstein, director of “Annie,” will also produce “Wizard of Oz” next holiday season.)

Elliott:  I guess it just makes me want to do it more.

Nelson:  Yeah, I think how exciting that you can do a show that people really, really want to see.

How do you anticipate the show will be received by the Twin Cities audience?

Elliott: It’s really great how they react to it, because different audiences have different reactions to humor and everything. The kids react different to things and the adults react different to things and it’s fun because every night you have a new audience — you just have to think that, too.

What are you (both) most looking forward to in opening this production?

Elliott: I’m excited to play both parts, Pepper and Annie, and I’m excited to just to open it. What about you?

Nelson: I’m kind of the same, well, not to play Pepper. I’m excited, but unfortunately, I don’t get to play Pepper. (Elliot laughs) I’m really excited just to get to do this, it’s been great working on it. I just think it’s going to be a lot of fun, just to do this and continue to grow. Because I don’t think the show, it’s not like you open the show and it never changes. I think you hope that when a show opens, it continues to grow in a good way. I have a lot of faith in everyone in this cast that it’s just going to continue to get better and better, as the run continues.

“Annie” opens Friday and runs through June 12. Tickets start at $20. For more information and to buy tickets, click here.


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