FORT ATKINSON – Theater director Ed Flesch can be curt and compassionate. Maybe it’s acting, maybe it’s natural after 30 years in show business. Still, it’s a hard knock life and he teaches that to 175 girls auditioning to play Annie.
Sharply dressed in suit and tie, Flesch stands on the bright square stage and splashes verbal cold water at the bubbly girls by describing the professional show’s harsh demands.
He will pick two Annies, he says, to handle nearly 100 performances from May 6 to July 18 for The Fireside Dinner Theatre, dubbed Wisconsin’s No. 1 motorcoach attraction.
“This is a job,” he declares. “That means if you wake up some day and don’t feel like coming, it doesn’t matter. You have to be here. That means if you’re invited to a party, the party goes out the window. If you have a little bit of a sniffle, you have to be here.”
He pauses for effect, softens his edges. “It will be fun. But it’s work. You don’t realize what a big sacrifice this is.”
With that, Flesch abandons his idea to let each candidate sing a prepared tune. He expected between 50 and 100 Annie aspirants at the one-night-only tryouts. To break the rehearsal down to a manageable number, he has groups of 10 step forward and each sing “Happy Birthday” to Annie.
It’s not an inane exercise.
“That top note that you hit is an F,” Flesch tells everyone. “You have to be able to sing an F to be in this show.”
Flesch holds a short bio of each girl with a photo attached. He sits alone in a fourth-row seat. He listens, watches and makes notations in a blink.
The girls – ages 7 to 14 and no taller than 5-foot-3 (a wood pole stretching 5-foot-3 measured each as they entered the theater) – react to the first “birthday” test with a piano accompanist:
One clenches her hands until you fear she’ll crack bones.
One has her voice dissolve until her lips move but no sound emerges.
“Smile, girls,” Flesch shouts at one point. “Stop looking like it’s torture even if it is.”
One walks around while singing, eventually dropping to her knees to sing to another person auditioning.
One stands next to the giggler, her friend, and starts laughing, too. (This will be a hilarious story for them into adulthood.)
One is named Annie.
One is Courtney Scalender, 8 of Oconomowoc. Afterward, she admits, “I could have been louder.” Her mother, Sarah Brown, says, “I was more nervous than she was. I could feel my heart coming out of my chest.”
Barely two minutes after the last birthday crooner, Flesch quickly announces 75 names to stay. The others may leave, he adds.
The week before, Flesch went to New York to audition 500 people for “Annie’s” adult roles. The two Annie and eight orphan roles will come from among the southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois girls here tonight.
“This isn’t like New York where you’d get some real pros showing up,” he says before the audition. “But there are talented people everywhere and I’ll find 10 kids that are on the level I need.”
Flesch tells the remaining candidates to perform almost any song.
“I want no Britney Spears-style pop,” he says. “And smile everyone. You may be orphans in this play, but you’re happy orphans.”
Most girls sing “Maybe” from “Annie” or “Les Miserables’” “Castle in the Sand.” A few deliver church hymns. Another offers “This Land is Your Land.”
After one girl finishes the minute-long solo, Flesch marvels, “You’re the first child I’ve ever heard sing Sondheim.”
Rachel Wicke, 12, wants to perform Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” a cappella. Flesch says she must sing a song with piano accompaniment. Unfazed, she suggests “Maybe” and handles the song with poise.
In the lobby, Wicke says she performed as Annie in a community theater production almost two years ago. From Rochelle, Ill., Wicke and her father drove 75 minutes one way for the audition.
Rachel dismisses obstacles, such as travel and missed school, to play Annie.
“I’d do it for free,” she says.
Flesch then separates most of the 42 finalists into four “orphan” groups on stage. Another group sits in the front row. These are the Annie candidates.
The others, he says, are up for orphan parts and he will notify the eight selected girls by phone soon. Only those picked will be called.
With nine girls left, Flesch tells each to sing “Tomorrow.”
“I want sound,” he announces. “I want you to hit those big notes at the end.”
Madison’s Elizabeth Heller, 11 and a sixth-grader at Savannah Oaks Middle School, goes first. She performed as Annie with West Side Performing Arts and her lean frame possesses an electrifying voice.
Afterward, Flesch smiles.
“How do you feel?”
“Awesome,” Heller says.
Moments later, Wicke sings “Tomorrow” with such force she nearly levitates the piano.
One other candidate, seventh-grader Katie Stenavich, combines spunk and vocal prowess.
In another flourish, Flesch has Heller, Wicke and Stenavich remain. The others depart. It’s nearly four hours after the audition began. He tells the trio that another girl, Elise Bartelt, auditioned that afternoon because she was performing with Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera Theatre tonight. She will be one of the Annies, he says.
The other Annie, who must cut and dye her hair red, will be one of the three remaining performers. He decides to have each return in a few days to read lines from the script.
Each girl leaves the theater exhausted but exhilarated.
Five days later, Flesch picks Stenavich, a winsome small girl from Brookfield. She begins “Annie” rehearsals the next day; they last from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week.
Let the show begin.