The story of the red-headed orphan whose life is turned from rags to riches has managed to touch the hearts of audiences for more than half a century. Originally a comic strip by Harold Gray, “Little Orphan Annie” became a Broadway musical in 1977—thanks to Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan—before hitting the big screen in 1982, courtesy of director John Huston. The story follows Annie, who’s living in the confines of the Municipal Girls Orphanage, run by a drunkard, Miss Hannigan, during the Great Depression. With the approaching Christmas holiday, rich billionaire Oliver Warbucks takes in an orphan and his assistant, Grace Farrell, chooses Annie. A persnickety man whose mood changes at the drop of a dime—er, million bucks—Warbucks lovingly becomes Daddy Warbucks to the spunky red-head 11-year-old who matches his every stern movement with mirrored irony.
While most folks are familiar with the story of “Annie,” her happy-ever-after, once she is fully adopted by Daddy Warbucks, became a world the audience could only imagine. That is until Christmas 1989, when Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin introduced the sequel, “Annie Warbucks.” Annie is threatened to be returned to the orphanage by Child Welfare Commissioner Harriet Doyle (who becomes the villain of the story much like Miss Hannigan was in the original) if Warbucks doesn’t marry soon. In search for his bride, Warbucks realizes his love for his assistant, Grace, while uncovering a plot to strip him of his fortune.
For years now local thespian JR Rodriguez has stepped into the shoes of Daddy Warbucks with many theatre companies from Michigan to NC. Rodriguez will do so for the 12th time as Thalian Association opens “Annie Warbucks” on Dec. 8 at Thalian Hall.
“The first time I played Warbucks was for Opera House [Theatre Company,] and Troy Rudeseal cast me in the role opposite Leigh Jones in 1997,” Rodriguez says. “I think I probably wanted to play it because I didn’t have kids. Up until then, I didn’t care for kids. I learned quickly that they are the best teachers you could possibly have.”
Sydney Short will be playing Warbucks partner in crime, Annie. Part of the package when playing Warbucks is Rodriguez having his Annie shave his head to match the shiny bald billionaire. “I do it to show the young actress I trust her,” Rodriguez tells. Short was timid in handling the razor but came through. The tradition began because of Rodriguez’s mentor Lou Criscuolo, who founded Opera House Theatre Company.
“Lou taught me something a long time ago,” he says. “Everyone of us is faced with fear. That’s when we arrive at a cliff. Now, greatness is proved the moment we jump off that cliff. Watching Sydney grab the clippers, although afraid, was a fantastic moment. Once she got into a rhythm, I think all the fear fell away.”
With a powerful voice backing her dramatic portrayal of the orphan, Short’s performance will be a Christmas gift to audiences, according to Rodriguez. “She’s very special,” he tells. Her version of “I Always Knew” especially hits a soft spot.
“It brings a smile to my face and a tear to my eye,” Rodriguez says. “It ties the two stories together [and] tells the story of the Little Red Head that can fix anything.”
While Katherine Rudeseal originally played Grace in Rodriguez’s debut production of “Annie” in the ‘90s, she returns this time around as a bad guy. Rudeseal and Rodriguez have grown into best friends because of “Annie.” For Thalian’s production, Katie Villecco takes over the love interest of Warbucks.
“The most precious thing is watching Katie and Kathy interact,” Rodriguez remarks. “It’s a very special relationship I see growing, and they probably don’t see it and maybe it’s because of the role they share with me. It’s one of my favorite parts of rehearsals.”
A lot of music makes up the production, including reprisals from the orphan girls and President Roosevelt. Actually, the beginning of the play picks up where the original ends in “New Deal For Christmas.” “Most of the songs are all fun,” Rodriguez tells. But the real benefit of the show is what keeps the actor returning to its script: its message of hope.
“Other than money, I’m a lot like Oliver Warbucks,” Rodriguez notes. “He never really takes time for himself. It’s always the next thing. For me, the next show, the next movie, the next project. The story of the optimistic red-headed orphan gives me a chance to meet a group of new people and celebrate the years with old friends.”