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The show must go on.
That's never more true than in a musical with 17 child performers and a live dog.
At the first preview performance of Rainbow Stage's Annie on Monday night, nine-year-old Zoë Adam, who plays the spunky title character, had just chased away some urchins who were tormenting a stray dog.
Alone on the stage, she was supposed to call the pooch -- played by an adorable mutt named Jake -- out of the wings, lead him to centre stage and comfort him by singing the optimistic solo Tomorrow.
But -- leapin' lizards! -- the canine co-star emerged with other ideas, apparently because he smelled theatre snacks.
"He ran off into the audience," recalls Zoë, a slender girl with light-brown hair. "I guess he was searching for popcorn."
She had to charge down the stairs after him, grab the rope around his neck and haul him back onstage. The next day she had to rehearse, over and over, getting his attention with a dog treat the moment he trotted out of the wings.
"It's kind of hard, trying to hold onto the dog and trying to get him to stay," the novice performer says about the mutt that Annie adopts and names Sandy.
But director Donna Fletcher says the dog's improv delighted the audience. Such moments are part of the charm, she says, of the heartwarming 1977 Broadway musical.
Based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie, it's about a scrappy red-haired orphan who keeps her chin up despite her "hard knock life" in Depression-era New York and finds an unexpected adoptive family.
Fittingly, five-year-old Jake actually was a stray, rescued by his owner from the Winnipeg pound. "He's a rags-to-riches dog," Fletcher says.
The family-friendly Annie opens Thursday at the Kildonan Park stage. The 35-member cast is all local, except for one dancer.
It includes musical-theatre mainstays Kevin Aichele (Daddy Warbucks), Debbie Maslowsky (Miss Hannigan) and Samantha Hill (Lily St. Regis), as well as Tom Soares, Steven Ratzlaff, Tim Gledhill and Donnalynn Grills.
Rainbow has mounted Annie only once before. In that production 25 years ago, Fletcher, a soprano then in her early 20s, was a member of the adult ensemble. Kimberley Rampersad, who played one of the orphans, is now the choreographer.
Sadly, the archival video of the 1987 production has been lost, says Fletcher, who is making her debut as a Rainbow director after performing in about 15 shows there. It was the only live production she's ever seen of Annie.
Some might be astounded to hear that she has never watched the 1982 movie adaptation starring Albert Finney as Warbucks, Bernadette Peters as Lily and Carol Burnett as mean Miss Hannigan, the gin-swilling, child-hating mistress of the orphanage.
Fletcher and her three-year-old daughter are fans, though, of the 1999 made-for-TV version with Victor Garber, Kristin Chenoweth and Kathy Bates, which she says is much more faithful to the Broadway original.
Fletcher and Rampersad auditioned more than 200 children for the 17 kids' roles. They were into their second day of auditions, she recalls, and still hadn't seen a single girl who was a potential Annie.
As they worried that they might have to cast a wider net, in walked Zoë, one of four Transcona offspring of a teacher father and a medical transcriptionist mother. The nine-year-old is a member of the Winnipeg Youth Chorus, but has never had a voice lesson and has only performed in school musicals.
Zoë, who plans to be a scientist when she grows up, lacked the training of many hopefuls but had seen the 1982 movie "like, 1,000 times."
When she opened her mouth and effortlessly poured out Tomorrow, Fletcher and Rampersad knew they had their star. "She was very, very natural -- no pretence, no artifice," says the director. "She just stood and sang, and the goosebumps just went up everywhere. She's a powerhouse -- and completely self-possessed."
Zoë wears two red wigs in the show -- first a straight one, then a curly one.
It may be a handful having to direct her four-legged sidekick, but Sandy is essential to the story, Fletcher says.
"Sandy is the first part of her family coming together... He's the beginning of her heart opening to be able to accept a new family."
Harold Gray, the cartoonist who created Little Orphan Annie, might spin in his conservative grave if he ever saw Annie, the Depression-era musical inspired by his "funny papers" comic strip.
Gray, who launched the popular syndicated comic in 1924 and died in 1968, believed strongly in capitalism and made a hero of the Republican self-made billionaire Oliver (Daddy) Warbucks.
Gray, no fan of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, used the strip to attack organized labour, communism and the New Deal -- 1930s economy-stimulating programs that Gray reviled as anti-business.
But in the musical, when 11-year-old Annie and her protector Warbucks go to visit FDR and his cabinet, her sunny outlook inspires them all to embrace the New Deal. They chime in on the signature song Tomorrow, which has been called a New Deal anthem.
Rainbow Stage director Donna Fletcher has researched the creation of the 1977 musical with tunes by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin and book by Thomas Meehan. She says it was originally conceived, post-Watergate, as a dark story dealing with corruption, cynicism and widespread hopelessness. The unemployed denizens of 1930s Hooverville originally appeared throughout the show as a bleak comment on 1970s America.
But while the musical was evolving, Jimmy Carter was elected, the U.S. celebrated its 1976 bicentennial, and the creators became more hopeful. "They wrote this whole scene where Warbucks is called to meet with FDR to try to reconcile ideas," Fletcher says. "Annie's simple words in Tomorrow get them out of hopelessness and infighting.
"They come together as one. It's this powerful moment where FDR says, 'Harmony!' and they all sing Tomorrow in four-part, amazing harmony. It's a metaphor for the coming together of political views.
"For Warbucks, it's (also) a personal journey where he sees that life is about more than business, more than money."
Opens today, to Aug. 31
Tickets $35 to $59.50 at 989-0888 or www.rainbowstage.ca