JUSTIN SELLERS/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Melton King, portraying Bert Healy, and Gillian Thompson, 11, portraying little orphan Annie, rehearse a scene at Natchez Little Theatre Wednesday night. The cast and crew will take the stage for “Annie” four times next week at the Natchez Little Theatre.
JUSTIN SELLERS/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Melton King, portraying Bert Healy, and Gillian Thompson, 11, portraying little orphan Annie, rehearse a scene at Natchez Little Theatre Wednesday night. The cast and crew will take the stage for “Annie” four times next week at the Natchez Little Theatre.

Little Theatre brings Broadway revival to Natchez

Published 12:05am Sunday, June 2, 2013

For those who feel like they’re stuck in the rut of a hard-knock life, Natchez Little Theatre has a message — the sun will come out tomorrow, or at least midweek.

NLT’s final production of its 65th season, “Annie,” will open Wednesday.

NLT Executive and Artistic Director Layne Taylor — who also directed the show and stars as Oliver Warbucks — said NLT was fortunate to have scheduled the musical — which is based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” — just as it was revived on Broadway.

The Broadway revival has received numerous Tony Award nominations, and for a community theater to be able to perform the show while it plays on Broadway is unusual, Taylor said.

“Normally, that is not something you get to do, but we were just ahead of the curve,” he said.

JUSTIN SELLERS/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Layne Taylor, portrays Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, and Gillian Thompson, 11, portrays little orphan Annie.
JUSTIN SELLERS/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Layne Taylor, portrays Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, and Gillian Thompson, 11, portrays little orphan Annie.

And Taylor said that while the depression-era tale of an orphan who befriends President Franklin Roosevelt and is ultimately adopted by a billionaire has its obvious period throwbacks, its core message of hope and optimism is timely.

“That story is still applicable today in 2013, just as it was when the comic strip was created in the Great Depression,” he said.

“Even though the economy is doing well, there is still an insecurity in the nation, a nation that is still so divided and has some who are so pessimistic. ‘Annie’ sends a very positive message that people need to pull together, work together and in so doing the sun will come out tomorrow.”

Delivering that message front and center will be newcomer Gillian Thompson, who in the role of the title character is able to project her voice throughout NLT’s performance space effortlessly.

“During the audition, she reminded me and my musical director of a young Ethel Merman — she is incredible,” Taylor said.

“She wanted that part so badly, she came to the theater wearing an Annie dress like from the comic strip to the audition — that takes a little chutzpah.

“But when she came out and sang ‘Tomorrow,’ she belted it out to the point where we thought she was going to blow the doors off.”

The director said he was also pleased with the talent displayed by the other youth actors, who as the other orphans in the Municipal Orphanage can pull off emotion and 1930s tough-guy talk — even through their Southern accents — with a natural, raw talent.

“All of these little, outgoing girls on stage who just bubble over with energy, when they are offstage they are all very quiet and very studious young women,” Taylor said. “It is what is so funny about them — they’re very active on the stage, but they have the spirits of 80-year-old women offstage.”

Pulling off a musical with song and dance numbers is a difficult process, Taylor said, but having the help of choreographers Sidney Eidt, Alethea Shelton and Leigh Anne Mason and musical director Mario Radford — who was assisted by Cheleen Sugar — has made for a phenomenal show.

“This has been a wonderful experience — especially for me being in a not ideal situation of directing and having to play the lead — to have so many of my young people who have grown up in this theater and who are home from college and who are not just performing in this but have actually have been indispensable to me in directing the production,” he said.

JUSTIN SELLERS/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Susannah Heatherly, who portrays Mrs. Greer, Charlie Vess, who portrays Franklin D. Roosevelt, and King were in the 1986 production of “Annie” and are returning to the stage for four performances this week.
JUSTIN SELLERS/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Susannah Heatherly, who portrays Mrs. Greer, Charlie Vess, who portrays Franklin D. Roosevelt, and King were in the 1986 production of “Annie” and are returning to the stage for four performances this week.

Along with the new and developing talent in the show are several NLT veterans, including three members of NLT’s 1986 cast of “Annie.”

Melton King is returning to NLT 15 years after his last production to reprise the role he had in 1986, that of radio personality Bert Healey.

King said he had wanted to return to the theater, and the chance to re-embody a familiar role helped push him to audition.

“I am the oldest guy in the cast, so I didn’t know how I would remember lines, so I really chose one I felt like would be a little easy, and it has turned out OK — and who knows, I might be back and do some more,” King said.

“As we practice, it really comes back, a lot of the gesturing and how I perceived Bert Healey to be as a 1930s radio announcer — you were performing before a live audience even though you were on the radio.”

And King said part of the reason Healey is so easy for him to play, even years later, comes from the song his character sings.

“I am sort of an upbeat person anyway, and so ‘You are never fully dressed without a smile,’ is sort of my motto,” he said.”

Charlie Vess portrayed Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff Louie Howe in 1986, wheeling the president across the stage. In 2013, Vess is now the one in the wheelchair, fulfilling what he said is a long-time personal goal of playing the Depression-era president.

“We are a little older, a little grayer, but we still have the same enthusiasm we did (27 years ago),” he said.

Susannah Heatherly has likewise seen a shift in roles since the last production of Annie. At 15, she portrayed a chorus maid; now, she’s playing the head housekeeper.

“I just remember back then how welcoming everyone was and how helpful everyone was to each other,” Heatherly said. “Now, looking at it as an adult, I see the same thing — my husband is involved, my daughter is one of the orphans — just seeing all of the kids from different schools, different ages, coming together — it is nice to see them enjoy (the musical).”

Taylor said that for the production he chose to focus on having a smaller but quality-intensive cast, so many of the actors perform quick changes throughout the musical, highlighting the actors’ versatility.

“Doubling up my actors and actresses has been a challenge, but a challenge they loved,” he said. “They literally go from being homeless to being Warbucks’ servants to being Roosevelt’s cabinet to being radio actors, and they do it seamlessly.”

Wednesday’s opening show will serve as a benefit to provide scholarships for underprivileged children to attend NLT’s summer youth workshop, Taylor said. It will open at 7 p.m., and tickets are $10.

The show will run for approximately two-and-a-half hours.

Other showings will be Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. The show will close with a matinee performance at 2 p.m. June 9.

Tickets to those performances are $15 for non-NLT members and can be purchased in advance by calling 601-442-2233 or online at www.natcheztheatre.org.