When mentioned in the pages of UTW in the past, Tulsa Project Theatre (TPT) has often been tagged with "upstart," "newcomer" and similar adjectives. But as the company wraps its 2011-2012 season with a shin-kicker of a production of Annie, there aren't many people left out there who think of TPT as anything but a theater powerhouse.
So far this season, TPT has given Tulsa a spectacular production of Seussical! The Musical, revived what can legitimately be referred to as a modern classic in Always ... Patsy Cline and staged a world premiere with Guess Who's Coming to Seder? How to wrap it up? With a red-headed orphan. Come on: headline or not, surely you knew that's what was coming.
Enter Emily Thresher, a fourth-grader from Sand Springs. She started her stint as the iconic orphan by just hoping to be in the background.
And, OMG, she's adorable.
"I really was just thinking I'd get in the orphanage. I never thought I'd get the lead role," she said. "I held my screams in until we got in the car, but then I was screaming like crazy. I was really excited."
Director Heather Hall Newman (yes, you recognize the name from her work as a choreographer for, like, a million different people, and more on that in a minute) raved about Thresher in the lead, as did children's director and a theater giant in her own right, Claire Kifer. But Newman and Kifer started singing the girl's praises very early.
While this isn't Thresher's first show ever, and while Newman enjoys a distinguished career as a choreographer, there's still a lot of new stuff going on here. Thresher has never had a lead before, and doesn't really have the longest resume in the world. Newman is, for the first time, juggling the jobs of both director and choreographer. And while each mentions hang-ups and issues that tend to accompany firsts like these, neither expresses any doubt. And no one within earshot of either one of them would have any doubts after listening to them.
Thresher expressed concern at the rehearsal pace -- it will barely have been a month from the time of the first rehearsal to opening night -- but one gets the feeling this is a pretty sharp kid who's telling the grownups something she thinks they want to hear.
"Really, it's been a little hard to learn all the lines that fast, but then I kind of already knew them pretty well," she said. "But since I've watched the movie so much, it's already kind of a part of me."
So it would seem she's not all that nervous, after all. And truthfully, why would be she be? Surrounded by a great cast, working with a company enjoying huge successes, both critically and commercially, and about to take her turn as the most famous orphan ever?
As for Newman, she doesn't even pretend like she's even supposed to be remotely nervous about this initial plunge into the work of double-duties -- or doing so for what is fast becoming Tulsa's It company.
"Yes, it's my first time directing and choreographing together. But it's been really, really great," she said. But not just because it's fun to be in charge. In fact, she hints around that it might be easier to do both jobs at once.
"It seems like it just kind of flows. Since a musical has a lot of songs, and there's lots of dancing, I get to have the whole vision this way. It seems more seamless. The entrances and exits and character builds are already there, and I can just enhance those in the songs," she said.
Before anyone might jump to conclude that this is a walk in the park, though, Newman is quick to mention growth opportunities for herself.
"Creating dances is like breathing for me," she said. "It's effortless and absolutely enjoyable, whether I'm working with kids or trained adults or people who don't know their right foot from their left."
Supplementing her choreographer job with that of director has forced her to re-think a few things, but she has nothing but positive things to say about the experience.
"Adding the director's role has been a challenge, but a good one. It's definitely more of a task to do both jobs -- it's different two jobs, not just combining two into one. That's been a learning experience for me that I have to separate choreography rehearsal from the acting part. Like, 'okay, I have to put on the director's hat,'" she said.
Thresher still sometimes can't believe she was cast as the quintessential ragamuffin ginger, and you really can't blame her. She has new friends and gets to sing songs she loves. Oh, and there's a dog. Hell, this makes me want to play Annie.
"The little girl who plays Molly [Addie Adcock] is one of my best friends. She's so funny and nice. We hang out the most," Thresher said. "She also has a really big voice for a little girl. I never knew she'd have that big a voice for how small she is."
Newman picks up on praises for the cast where Thresher leaves off.
"It's been so fun, and everybody that I'm working with is so talented that it makes what I'm doing so much easier," she said. And then the gushing began.
And the cast ought to be stellar. There are faces Tulsa theatergoers will recognize from other TPT shows, but there's also, for instance, Shari Lewis-Townes, a Tulsa theatrical mainstay for quite some time.
"Shari [Lewis-Townes] is playing Grace, and everybody knows her. And then John Orsulack is playing Warbucks, and he's played that role before," she said. "It's been an unspeakable blessing to have these people show up. They already know their characters, and they're bringing stuff in, and a lot of times I'm just like, 'Oh, great!' It makes things easier just because they're all so talented."
Growing up exclusively in the third millennium, Thresher and her friends at school haven't necessarily all seen Annie, and there are a few who'd never even heard of it. Still, Thresher is spreading the cultural wealth to her pals.
"I don't think a lot of my school friends really knew what it was. When I told them I was in Annie, a lot of them were like, 'What's that?' One of my friends had to go home and ask his mom if he could watch the movie," she said.
As TPT plans its new season, Newman hopes to reprise her dual role in the future.
"It's a joy to work with TPT, and I'm really excited about the season they have coming up. I love doing both, and I hope that I get an opportunity to do more shows while wearing both hats," she said.
And it would seem Thresher would enjoy that, too.
"Heather is really nice," she said. "And I've had a pretty good experience being onstage. When I sing, I get a little nervous, but I'm just happy to be on stage. That's really it."
Annie is presented by Tulsa Project Theatre at the Tulsa Convention Center's Assembly Hall. The show runs June 8-10 and 13-17 at 7:30pm, with 2pm matinees June 9, 10, 16 and 17. Tickets start at $20 and are available through tulsaprojecttheatre.com.
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