The musical “Annie” is a theater dream come true for kids lucky enough to become part of it. When it was first staged in 1980 by Repertory Philippines, it marked the first chapter in Lea Salonga’s eventual stellar career in musical theater.
Resorts World Manila and Full House Theater Company’s upcoming production of “Annie,” which opens Sept. 30 at the Newport Performing Arts Theater, introduces a new generation of talented kids who, if the stars align for them, can become the next Salonga—or any one of the theater pillars led by Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo who comprise the stalwart adult supporting cast of the production.
“Working with kids is not something that is unknown to me,” said director Michael Williams, who has been a co-actor, director or teacher to many children in his long years on the stage. For this production, he made sure everyone underwent a special workshop before the start of rehearsals.
“We needed to work on the children one by one to get them ready,” said Lauchengco-Yulo, co-artistic director of Full House and associate director of “Annie.” “We taught them projection, energy, how to go for truth, etcetera.”
The two Annies
Izabeli Elizalde and Krystal Brimner are alternating as Annie, and this early they are approaching their roles in different ways.
Elizalde said she listens to what the older actors teach her: “Michael de Mesa told me that even when it’s not my turn to speak or anything, I should still stay in character.”
Brimner, who has appeared in Erik Matti’s acclaimed film “Honor Thy Father” as John Lloyd Cruz’s daughter, said she draws on a sad moment in her life if the scene calls for it. “I think of my grandmother who died when I was seven years old,” she said matter-of-factly.
Alba Berenguer-Testa, who plays one of the orphans, added: “You learn things you never really knew, and dancing is fun, singing is fun, and when you make a mistake you can do it all over again, which makes it even more fun.”
Aside from the challenge of working with kids who were the product of an extensive series of open auditions, the production also requires a live dog in key scenes for the role of Sandy, Annie’s trusty sidekick. Full House collaborated with Better Dogs Canine Behavior Center to train two dogs—Tony, a 6-year-old golden retriever; and Alab, an “aspin” or native dog.
Mako Alonso and Red Concepcion (alternating as Rooster Hannigan), Jill Peña (Grace Farrell) and Justiñe Peña (Lily St. Regis) were the first actors cast, and they helped panel the first round of open auditions. Having been with the kids cast from day one, they are proud of how much the kids have grown.
“Seeing the process from the auditions to where we are now, it’s amazing to see how much they’ve developed and how much they’ve gelled together,” said Justine.
Meanwhile, de Mesa, who plays the billionaire Oliver Warbucks, said working with kids forces him to stay on his toes.
“I have to bring my A game. I have to bring my energy with me and not leave it at home. But what’s nice about these kids, whether they’re first-timers or already have stage experience, is that you can really say they’re professionals, they’re easy to talk to.”
“Michael is very clear with what he wants from the kids, and the kids are delivering,” he added.
For Lauchengco-Yulo, keeping in character is quite hard given the company of cute tykes. “I keep telling them they have to stop hugging me because they have to hate me, but it doesn’t work! I have fallen in love with each and everyone of these girls, so it [the performance] will entail a lot of acting.”
What does it take to be one of these girls who are into the theater at such a young age? Lauchengco-Yulo and Williams offered advice to parents of budding child performers:
“Just be very supportive of your children,” said Lauchengco-Yulo. “Don’t teach them; sometimes what you’re teaching them may not be what we want, and you’ll just confuse the child. But be there for them because they’re going to be frustrated, they’re going to go through a lot. It’s not easy, and it’s a lot of pressure on them.”
“Expose them to the arts. Get them training,” said Williams. “The glamour and the glitz are just the tip of the iceberg and have nothing to do with the real work. It’s all about hard work and dedication.”
The kids in “Annie,” deep into daily rehearsals these days, are showing the way.