Once teacher and pupil

Once teacher and pupil

Annie is only just days away…

Annie, the musical, reunites director with his former student in staging the Powerhouse Theatre production in Vernon.

A lot of people know Vernon’s Jackson Mace for his booming voice. The lead singer/guitarist of local rock band MACE, which recently celebrated its 31st anniversary, can certainly belt out a tune.

Besides his obvious command of an audience, the former full-time elementary school teacher has also directed a number of local theatrical productions. But there’s one that has stuck with him from when he was first handed a megaphone — an unnecessary prop — while directing plays from his teaching days at Okanagan Landing Elementary.

Here’s a hint: It’s about a red-headed orphan, featured in a comic strip, Broadway musical and film, who sings about the sun coming out tomorrow. And you can bet your bottom dollar that Mace, and many others out there, are glad to see Annie back on the stage.

“It’s hard not to love Annie and the feistiness she has,” said Mace, who is directing the show as the opener of Powerhouse’s 2012-13 season. “It still has relevance today. It’s a story of redemption, about a guy wrapped up in money who has his heart turned around. She even influences the White House to re-set the course of the U.S. government when she sings “the sun will come out,” inspiring a new deal.”

A Daddy Warbucks if he had no hair and a lot more money, Mace’s booming personality has served him well as a director.

But unlike the lonely billionaire, Mace has no problem with generosity. Just ask his former student Elise Wilson, who played the lead when Mace directed Annie for Okanagan Landing in 2005.

Wilson has been cast to play a different role in the Powerhouse production, this time as Daddy Warbucks’ long suffering secretary, Grace Farrell.

“When Jackson asked me to audition for this show, I was totally down for it,” said Wilson, who has pursued dance and singing, and in 2010 acted as Cha Cha in Powerhouse’s last big musical production, Grease. “I’m 18 now so I was not sure where I’d fit in — I’m not really an orphan or an adult.”

For Mace, it was a no brainer. He instantly thought of Wilson, who shared the part of Annie when she was in Grade 5, and says he found her through Facebook and asked her to audition for the Powerhouse production.

“It was a big production back then. We did auditions. They were open-ended, so if anyone wanted to give it a try, I would find them a spot in the show. With Elise, it was pretty clear cut. I had a strong group of singers who were in Grade 5, and Elise was definitely one of them.”

Mace felt the same way when Wilson and the others came to audition for the Powerhouse production.

“She sang Little Girl at the audition and I asked her if she knew I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here (Grace’s song)  and she nailed it,” said Mace, adding he has a few other actors in the ensemble playing older characters. “They can do so much to cover it as they are all so talented.”

Some of those talents include 12-year-old Shaughnessy O’Brien, a natural redhead, seemingly destined to play the part of Annie.

“She is extremely talented,” said Mace. “You give her a note or a suggestion just once and she’s got it.”

“She also looks the part and is very mature,” added Wilson. “Most of my scenes are with Annie and I think Shaughnessy is such a great girl. When she’s on the stage, she’s focussed.”

Playing the part of Annie’s nemesis, the scheming orphanage owner Miss Hannigan, is none other than Lana O’Brien, Shaughnessy’s real-life mom and beloved drama teacher at W.L. Seaton Secondary School.

“She brings so much experience to the role and is also a gifted director. What she brings to her scenes goes a notch higher,” said Mace.

Last year’s O-Zone and Theatre BC Mainstage winning director Matt Brown (The Woman in Black) is back acting as Miss Hannigan’s sleazy brother, Daniel (Rooster) Hannigan, while Emily Heayn (Grease, Lend Me A Tenor) plays his clueless girlfriend, Lily St. Regis.

Scott May (who has played Valjean in Les Miz, as well as the Pirate King in last year’s Pirates of Penzance, both Valley Vocal Arts productions) has shaved his head to play Daddy Warbucks.

Mace has also been impressed with the time and dedication each actor, including his ensemble, some of which consists of nine young orphans, ages nine to 14, have devoted to the musical including rehearsing until 9:30 p.m. on some school nights.

“At the auditions, I told them even if you get an ensemble part, you’ll be on the stage a lot. You’ll be playing a number of characters and singing in almost all the musical numbers…. It’s loaded with opportunities to fulfill a need to perform and be on stage.”

The cast has also been working with chorographer Susan Fenner on all those big group numbers.

“Each number has choreography, but it’s different dancing than what audiences saw in Grease. It’s more in the background, but still important. We even wrote in a dance piece for Emily (Lily) to perform that’s a Charleston,” said Mace.

Behind the scenes, the crew, led by technical director Val Heuman, has been working on the technically and logistically challenging scenes with so many people on the stage, and the “tremendously involved” set created by Eugene Leveque, said Mace, who also gives a shout out to head costumer Erika Belsheim.

“When Annie and Warbucks enter a street scene, there’s a fortune teller, a juggler, an usherette, and even Santa. It really shows off Erika’s talent,” said Mace.

For Wilson, the person she wants to thank is the guy who got her up on that stage in the first place.

“The cast is so grateful to have such a dedicated and wonderful director,” she said.

Spoken like Little Orphan Annie  herself.

Annie opens at the Powerhouse Theatre on Wednesday and continues nightly at 7:30 p.m. (except Sundays and Mondays) to Dec. 1. Matinées take place Sunday, Nov. 25 and Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. At press time, tickets were close to 90 per cent sold out with some single tickets still available. Call or visit the Ticket Seller in the Vernon Performing Arts Centre (250-549-7469) to ask about availability.