The prospect of directing children onstage never scared John Saunders. Kids are some of the most professional people he knows.
"Usually for something like 'Annie' you would double cast the show," said Saunders, who is directing the huge Broadway smash from 1977 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, opening today at 2 p.m. and running through Sept. 2. "You might have seven kids performing dual roles. But it was my decision to use 14 because they're all so talented. I have an extraordinary group, so I said, 'Let's use all of them.' We're putting them all onstage."
"Annie" is the Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan creation that won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Based on the Harold Gray comic-strip character "Little Orphan Annie," the musical follows the trials and tribulations of Annie, an 11-year-old living at a large municipal orphanage. It has spawned numerous revivals and a movie, and also produced one of the most popular show tunes in the history of Broadway, "Tomorrow."
This production marks the second time that Saunders, artistic director at Mac-Haydn for the past seven years, has staged the show in Chatham.
"Personally, this is the first Broadway show I ever saw and it's my favorite," said Saunders, who has worked at Mac-Haydn in some capacity for 18 of the past 19 summers. "My parents took me to see it, and I grew up with six sisters. 'Annie' was sort of the soundtrack of my life. But even with six sisters, I still loved the show and the music."
Saunders says the show remains relevant today.
"You might think it would be light and fluffy because it's based on a comic-strip character, but it really isn't," he said. "There's so much going on in the show and it is very timely. All these little girls are looking for families, so there is a lot of heart in the show."
While Saunders was happy being a part-time employee at Mac-Haydn, he didn't have to think twice when owner Lynne Haydn offered him the post of artistic director.
"It was about seven years ago that she called me up and told me to come on up and watch how things work," remembered Saunders. "I love working here. It's a special place and it's a full-time job. You might think it would just be the summer, but as soon as we're done I start planning the season for the following year."
Saunders says the theater-in-the-round setup at Mac-Haydn makes a visit especially enjoyable.
"There's an atmosphere here," he said. "It feels like a big event throughout the summer. I would walk in and look at this space, and the theater-in-the round looked like a challenge. 'How is it possible to put on a show here.' But something happens when the lights go down. The setup gives you a close-up look at the show. You never feel like you're far removed from the action. You feel like you're almost a part of the show."
Saunders grew up in Spring Lakes, New Jersey, and was a performer in musical theater before becoming a director about 10 years ago.
Starring in the Mac-Haydn production of "Annie" will be Altamont's Rieleigh Smith, a student at Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland. She will share time in the title role with New York City's Annabel Feigen. Mac-Haydn regular Monica M. Wemitt will play Miss Hannigan, George Dvorsky is Daddy Warbucks and Sebastiani Romagnolo is Rooster. Patrick Heffernan is the show's choreographer.
'Spelling Bee' at Theater Barn'
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," winner of two 2005 Tony Awards, begins tonight at 8 at The Theater Barn in New Lebanon. The show focuses on a fictional spelling bee with six quirky adolescents in the competition. It is run by three equally quirky adults.
Written by Rachel Sheinkin (book) and William Finn (music), "Spelling Bee" is being directed by Marc de la Concha. Ollie Townsend is the music director, and the cast includes Alexandra Foley, Patrick Scholl, Alexa Renee, Travis C. Brown and Paul Urriola.
The show runs through Sept. 2.
WHERE: Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 NY Route 203, Chatham
WHEN: Opens today at 2 p.m. and runs through Sept. 2; performances are at 2 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday at 2 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $39-$15
MORE INFO: Visit www.machaydntheatre.org
'25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee'
WHERE: The Theater Barn, 654 Route 20, New Lebanon
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, through Sept. 2
HOW MUCH: $29-$27
MORE INFO: (518) 794-8989, or visit www.thetheaterbarn.org