‘Ms. Warbucks’ imagines another tomorrow for Annie

Actors stand around a table laughing
Left, Alice Basden, Trevor Chapman, Caroline Helm Huval and Melissa Stevenson share laughs during song practice at a Ms. Warbucks musical rehearsal, Tuesday, May 15, 2024.

What if Little Orphan Annie shook off a lifetime of being little and went big? Writers Caroline Helm Huval and Bonny McDonald answer this question with the musical Ms. Warbucks, playing in June at the Acadiana Center for the Arts. 

Directed by Christy Leichty with songs written by Johanna Divine, Chas Justus and Lincoln Landry, the musical follows the adult Ms. Annie Warbucks and a gathering of nursing home residents as they delve into what it means to be forgotten, to forgive and to find a home.  

The musical, written a century after Annie’s debut in Harold Gray’s comic strip, is set in 1960s New York City. Ms. Warbucks, played by Huval, has taken the benevolence and the name of her foster father and left behind a century of girlhood — retaining her spunk and humor as she faces issues of abandonment at both ends of life during her visits with Ms. Agatha, the former orphanage director.

The musical has been nearly a decade in the making with collaboration being key to its evolution. Beginning with a question and ending with a couple of romping hours of entertainment in response, Ms. Warbucks uses local talent and arts infrastructure to bring quality theater to Lafayette.

Actors run through stage blocking in a ballroom
Left, Eugene Kwarteng practices lines with other cast members during a Ms. Warbucks musical rehearsal, Tuesday, May 15, 2024.

Huval, enamored with Annie since she saw the 1982 movie based on the Broadway hit, had theatrical aspirations to be Annie in her high school’s musical. Despite the setback of being cast as the bossy Pepper instead, her obsession grew. In 2015, while visiting a nursing home in her capacity as a social worker, she envisioned the residents singing “It’s A Hard Knock Life” which set her creative mind to persistently asking, “What ever happened to Annie?!” 

That question became the inspiration for the musical as she began convening a group of professional artists and supportive friends to realize the vision. With a dual career in social work and performance, Huval recognized from the beginning the necessity of paying the artists involved. Supporters agreed and invested in the production, which met its fundraising goal within the first month of setting it. 

Anchoring the production with solid talent, songwriters Divine and Justus were called on before the first scene was written. Having performed in the musical Dream of the Marionettes which Divine had co-written, Huval was confident in Divine’s ability to turn emotion and rhythm into song. Grammy nominated Justus had worked with Huval writing commercial jingles and has a knack for songs that make people laugh, weep or buy a loaf of locally baked bread. 

 “Caroline gave powerful directives; she would simply emote a feeling of what a song should be,” Justus recalls. With one of Huval’s emotional edicts in mind, Justus, who teaches music at UL, regaled a classroom of college students with reminiscences of playing with the Red Stick Ramblers – packed clubs,  screaming fans. Class dismissed. In ten minutes, crying, he wrote Ms. Warbucks’ signature tearjerker, “You Should’ve Seen Me” in which nursing home residents each sing a verse of who they used to be.

Moving into rehearsals, Lincoln Landry was brought in to give voice to a character whose complex thoughts begged to be sung in Landry’s smooth, rhythmic songwriting style. Collectively the songwriters provided place holders for the themes and emotions which would inform the script.

McDonald, Helm’s co-writer and  a theater professor with years of experience bringing ideas to theatrical fruition, says the pair took a collaborative process to writing the script, inviting input from outside the writing tandem early on. 

“Our strengths played together well; we rescued each other from all kinds of bad ideas. We shared an early rough draft with a group of experienced actors and friends. That was one of the smartest decisions we made, and the early feedback significantly shaped the story. Sharing that embarrassing draft was as productive as it was terrifying.”

Under Leichty’s direction the songs and script interact seamlessly in the hands of a fifteen-member cast comprised mostly of professional actors.  “One of the great pleasures of working with the older actors is getting to showcase their skills. They have years of accumulated performance experience between them,” she says. 

The musical will be played in the round — a theater configuration where the audience surrounds the stage from which the action plays out in all directions. A four-piece live band will be slightly elevated in the audience.

“It’s an arrangement that brings everybody in,” says Leichty. “You have four front rows. It’s a heightened way to hear a story – whatever you see the players feel, you feel. You get lost in it – you can’t turn it off like a TV and walk away.”

You won’t want to walk away. Every aspect, from the acting to the costuming, promises to entertain. Experienced seamstress Sally Johnson has created a unifying color scheme: vivid brights against the black stage evoke the feeling of the cartoon strip. Sewing from vintage Vogue patterns and tailoring thrifted finds she has created over half the costumes. 

Pulling from her late daughter Jillian Johnson’s fabric stash, Johnson has brought an added depth to the costuming work. Jillian Johnson, a prolific creative, had worked with many of the artists involved in the musical. Her presence will be felt from the stage when Annie dons a snazzy polka dot pantsuit. 

As Ms. Warbucks prepares to take the Moncus Theater stage at the ACA, Huval invites all to join in experiencing what happened to Annie. “Come release yourself, leave all your troubles behind, and let us take you away,” she says.

It will be big.

Ms. Warbucks is showing at Acadiana Center for the Arts, June 6-8. Tickets can be purchased at www.acadianacenterforthearts.org. Follow @ms._warbucks on Instagram for updates and details. To donate to the Ms. Warbucks production, visit gofundme.com