As part of its 100th anniversary season, the Muny is bringing Little Orphan Annie, the plucky comic book heroine created by Harold Gray, back to the stage in the beloved musical “Annie.” The show, which had its Muny premier in 1978 and was last produced in 2009, is returning for an eighth time, with Peyton Ella in the title role.
Though she’s just 12 years old, Peyton, who is making her Muny debut, has already spent half of her life performing. At age 7 she played Gretl in NBC’s live musical “The Sound of Music,” and she has appeared in a number of regional professional productions. Among her favorite moments are performing with Vanessa Williams in “Show Boat,” and with Betty Buckley in “Grey Gardens” at Lincoln Center. “I learned so much from these actors,” she notes with fondness in her voice. “And that’s part of what I love about acting. Though they are stars, everyone is so nice and willing to share what they know with me.”
The role of Annie is an iconic one for a young woman to play. She’s plucky, courageous and always optimistic, even when she’s faced with a challenge, and Peyton is honored to be filling her shoes. What makes the show and the role even more special, however, is her family connection. In the 1980s, Tara, Peyton’s mom, performed the role of Annie in New York and in regional productions around the country. “I was originally Kate, another one of the orphans, and the understudy for Annie,” Tara explains. “I had the good fortune to perform the role about two dozen times on Broadway.”
Peyton states that the fact her mom also played Annie is both exciting and makes her a little nervous; her mom quickly steps in to compliment her daughter. “Peyton has really made the role her own,” she interjects. “It’s sweet to have this bond through Annie, and it brings back great memories for me, but I’m just so proud of the way Peyton handles the role. Her ability to listen and follow each director’s vision for the show is amazing.” While it’s clear that mom wants to keep the focus on her daughter, the two light up with joy when mentioning the shared role. In a fitting coincidence, Tara originated the role of Annie at the Paper Mill Playhouse and Peyton was first cast as Annie in that theater’s recent revival, bringing the family connection to the show full circle.
Though she’s performed Annie in several regional theaters, Peyton has never performed outdoors. “That can be a little intimidating,” she mentions, and then giggles describing the birds buzzing around the first time the cast rehearsed one of the show’s signature numbers “Hard Knock Life.” As Peyton explains, “Nothing prepares you for the Muny stage and that first moment you look out towards the seats. It’s amazing, and also a little terrifying.”
Peyton is thrilled to be reunited with Christopher Sieber, who plays Daddy Warbucks, and Sunny, the terrier mix who plays Annie’s dog Sandy, as well as her handler. Peyton and her mom are both quick to acknowledge the warm welcome and professional demeanor of the staff and other artists as well as the talents of director, and Muny favorite, John Tartaglia. “The talent level here is off the charts,” Tara notes as Peyton nods enthusiastically in agreement. “The Muny is a truly special place – it is Broadway for the Midwest.”
The Muny’s production of “Annie” hasn’t been all hard work, however. Peyton and the orphans have already become fast friends, enjoying Ted Drewes and exploring St. Louis together, with plans to visit the City Museum before the run is over. She’s also discovered a new culinary love, “Imo’s Pizza. It’s incredible,” Peyton says in a ringing endorsement. “We’ve already had it twice!”
The family friendly musical “Annie” opens at The Muny July 18 and continues through July 25. For more information call (314) 361-1900 or visit www.muny.org.