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On Easy Street With 'Annie'

The sun will come out three weekends this summer for the Sterling Playmakers.

The Sterling Playmakers, a local community theater group, will showcase the talent of more than 90 cast members Ñ a record number cast for the group Ñ in this summer's production of "Annie."

The cast was narrowed down from the 227 people who auditioned by script reading, singing and dancing for director Beth Robertson and senior staff.

Robertson, one of the founding members of the Playmakers eight years ago, has directed many productions for the group, including "The Three Musketeers" and "Cinderella."

She is not only excited about this summer's selected musical but also for the record number cast. "Personally, this is a fantastic show for all ages," she said. "I've wanted to direct this for a long time."

This is The Playmakers' second brush with a large cast, "The Music Man," had approximately 80 cast members. "I like a large cast," Robertson said. "I like to get as many people as possible involved."

Tosha Shall, Leesburg, choreographs the production and put everyone through a dance audition. "The director wanted to stress singing and acting," she said. "Annie was required to know minimal dance moves. As far as dancing's concerned, it didn't matter who became Annie because I can work with anyone."

MICHELLE VILJOEN, of Countryside, has participated in school and church plays since she was 7 years old. Now 12, Michelle owned the movie and was familiar with the stage production before the audition that would claim her spot as Annie.

Robertson called Michelle the night of her audition to tell her the news. "I was so excited I was literally shaking," Michelle said.

She said that she is surrounded by great role models at the Playmakers but that one of the most interesting people with whom she works is Rick DeLisi, who plays Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks. "He is just hysterical. He is so funny on stage but he can also make me laugh off stage as well."

DeLisi might keep Michelle laughing, but rehearsals keep the entire cast and crew laughing. "We were doing this one scene and one of the actors was supposed to say, 'Get her coat' and, instead, he said, 'Get her goat.' We were cracking up at that one," Michelle said.

Michelle is constantly learning lines, dances and songs but, playing her first lead role, she has also learned "that being the lead is not as easy as it looks."

THE CAST of "Annie" comes from all over Northern Virginia. "I'm probably the farthest away. I'm from Gainesville," Robertson said. "They're from Springfield, Fairfax, but mostly Loudoun County."

The stage experience of the cast is also diverse. "Some of the cast are professionals and, for many, this is their first time on stage," she said.

Karlah Louis, 41, is one of the professionals, who is playing the role of Miss Hannigan. A Sterling resident, Louis, now retired, was a professional actress for 20 years, now seeking to re-enter the field. She has participated in seven national Broadway tours and was cast in more than 120 plays. Louis also has two Helen Hayes nominations for best actress.

Despite having played Miss Hannigan before, Louis still needed to prepare for her audition. "I owned the movie, so I pulled that out and watched it. I knew the music and became reacquainted with it," she said. "Miss Hannigan is always drunk, so I practiced my drunk. She's really fun to play. She's a floozy. She's drunk and mean and totally unredeemable."

Like many productions, the film version often drastically deviates from the stage production. Louis explained one of the many important differences between the movie and the stage production. "Carol Burnett played Miss Hannigan in the movie and she didn't want to appear to be a mean, hateful woman. In the play, she ends up in jail," she said. "She's a real piece."

Robertson said that the play doesn't follow the musical at all. There are songs that are not in the movie. The movie is set in summer; whereas, the stage production is around Christmas. "The story is the same, though," Robertson said. "There's a little orphan named Annie who spends a week with Daddy Warbucks and the evil Miss Hannigan keeps messing things up."

Louis' 7-year-old daughter, who is playing one of the orphans, accompanies her on stage this summer. "My favorite thing about 'Annie' is getting to be on stage with my daughter," she said. "She's at that age where she doesn't want me to kiss her in public or anything like that but once we get to rehearsal, she clings to me because she is so proud that her mom is Miss Hannigan."

Similar to Michelle, Louis also praises Rick DeLisi and his family Ñ one of the many families participating in "Annie" as a group. Rick DeLisi is Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks; Jeannie DeLisi, his wife, is Mrs. Pugh and the vocal director. Chris DeLisi, their son, is a newsboy.

"I've done all kinds of work with Rick, including 'South Pacific.' He is just naturally funny," Louis said. "He's one of those people who could be a comedian. Jeannie is a very dear friend of mine. And that's the great part about this. They're all dear friends of mine and I get to work with them."

RICK DELISI, 46, is an Ashburn resident who has been involved with the Playmakers for the past three years. Having no familiarity with "Annie" prior to the preparation for his audition, DeLisi was excited to play the role of Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks not only because he has the opportunity to share the stage with his family but also because Michelle landed the lead.

"Almost all of my scenes are done with Annie. She is absolutely the best," DeLisi said. "Michelle is a very talented, great kid. She has a tremendous sense of comfort with her very big part. She has none of the backstage ego complex that is so common with other kids in her position. There is no question that if she decided to pursue performing she would succeed. She is very, very good at it."

DeLisi also felt that Louis was one of his favorite people with whom to work. "She is a total stitch to work with," he said. "She is very funny in this role. She just has an over the top, great comedic effect. Guaranteed the $10 price of admission worth of laughs out of her."

DeLisi met his wife, Jeannie, a world-class opera singer, 15 years ago on the set of "The Music Man." When their son was born, they took a hiatus from performing. It was not long before their son began to demonstrate an interest in performing. The family all performed in "The Christmas Carol," where Rick DeLisi played Scrooge.

"Most suburban parents spend most of their lives chauffeuring their kids to various activities," DeLisi said. "Everyone in the family plays an equal part in the theater. This is the most fun thing in the world to do with your family."

HIS FIRST TIME music directing, T.J. Miles, conductor of the pit orchestra, has been a member of the Playmakers for three years. Miles said that the 15-member orchestra is mainly comprised of members of the Loudoun Community Group, Playmakers and the teaching community.

A band director at Sterling Middle School, he is excited about the role children play in the production. "Since I'm a teacher, I'm partial to the children," he said. "I love to see their enthusiasm about this."

With more than 45 children cast in "Annie," DeLisi said that there is no distinction between children and adults on the set. "There are no kids in the theater," he said. "There are only performers playing the roles of kids. You can't be a baby or immature to be a performer. They really are equal to adults."

Louis may play the role of the abusive Miss Hannigan, but her hopes for this production all rest with children. "I hope that all 45 of those little girls go on stage, have a blast and bring their families. 'Annie' is not a show that you do for adults to get our kicks on the stage," she said.

"This is what the Sterling Playmakers is all about: to promote theater to families. I want this to be a successful, positive theatrical experience for the kids so they continue to enjoy theater when they grow up."