Annie

Heather Dudenbostel, as Grace, shows Annie, played by Emma Howard, her new home at a final dress rehearsal of 'Annie' at the Glendale Centre Theatre. (Tim Berger / Staff Photographer / May 16, 2012)

This year marks the 35th anniversary of “Annie,” which tells the story of Little Orphan Annie, a child who runs away from an orphanage and finds a family with rough but sensitive billionaire Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks. This week, the musical opened at the Glendale Centre Theatre starring 11-year-old Emma Howard, who was one of seven finalists for a new Broadway production of the show, which opens in New York this fall.

Howard, a native of Santa Clarita, was part of a nine-month-long nationwide search that involved auditioning more than 5,000 Annie hopefuls who showed up for an open casting call for the Broadway musical version. The Broadway version is directed by Tony Award-winning director James Lapine, and choreographed by Tony Award-winning Andy Blankenbuehler.

Howard didn't make the final cut, but said, “I feel really appreciative [of the experience]. It's just amazing to have an opportunity like that.”

Glendale Centre Theatre Director Michael Sterling, who also serves as the theater's public relations director, said he knew Emma was the one “instantly” when she auditioned for the Glendale theater production. “You know instantly when someone walks in the door, 30 seconds before they open their mouth [if they have what you're looking for],” Sterling said. “She clearly did in New York.”

The middle schooler is no stranger to the role of Annie, having played the Depression-era orphan girl more than a handful of times in local and regional theater. Based on the popular Harold Gray comic strip, the musical first opened on Broadway in 1977, pitting the title character against the orphanage's mean Miss Hannigan while finding comfort with “Daddy” Warbucks and his personal secretary, Grace Farrell, as well as a mutt called Sandy.

“I have yet to see her with a script. She doesn't need it,” said theater veteran Peter Husmann, who plays the role of Warbucks, of working with Howard. “She's obviously familiar with it, which makes it easier; she's right there with lines, she knows the part, she knows her stuff. I said to myself, ‘OK, I better up my game here, this kid's on the ball.'”

Dynell Leigh, who plays the mean, drunken Miss Hannigan, concurred with Husmann's assessment. “She's great, an awesome kid,” Leigh said. “She's not some serious diva, she's a nice normal kid, and her parents are nice and great to work with.”

The Glendale Centre Theatre, which was founded by hopeful actors Ruth and Nathan Hale in 1947, is celebrating its own anniversary, marking 65 years in Glendale. It is currently owned and operated by Hale family members.

Husmann, who also works as a commercial, radio and industrial commercial actor, has played twice at GCT, as John Adams in last year's production of “1776,” and 25 years ago in “Love and Kisses.”

Montebello native Leigh is also a theater veteran and solely does stage work. She's been performing with the GCT for the past 10 years. This is the first time she's played the role of Hannigan, and Leigh said it takes “a lot of energy; the songs, the movement, she's always yelling or drunk or something.”

However, Leigh said, “It's a lot of fun. What's great about character actor parts is they get to play the comic relief as the villain.”

This is Howard's first show with the Glendale Centre Theatre.

“I'm really loving it,” the young actress said. “They're really nice people. I love my director and the choreographer. Everyone in the cast and crew is so nice.”

As for her preparation for her role as Annie, Howard said, “I know it by heart. I just kind of sit back and relax, and go with the flow....”

LAURA TATE is a frequent contributor to Marquee.


“Annie”

Where: Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.

When: Through June 30; Thursday to Saturday 8 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. Sunday Matinees at 3 p.m. on May 27 and June 3 only.

Tickets: $22-$28.

Info: (818) 244-8481, www.glendalecentretheatre.com.