Nearly three decades later, the Omaha cast of the musical “Annie” reunited — and enjoyed one more tomorrow. “Tomorrow! Tomorrow! I love ya, tomorrow!” is the signature musical phrase of the show that has made a recent return to Broadway. But the cast and crew from the old Upstairs Dinner Theater — including three who sang the lead role of Annie in a memorable six-month run in 1984 — made a return of their own. They gathered in Omaha on Feb. 1 for a night of embracing, reminiscing and, of course, singing — until 1:15 a.m.
“It was absolutely amazing,” said Happi Holmes Berger, who was 10 when she won the lead role after auditions by dozens of girls. “Just to see all the people I hadn't seen in 30 years was wonderful.”
The three Annies grew up in theater and are leading lives of accomplishment:
Happi, who resides in the Chicago area, teaches voice and piano, is married and is the mother of two.
Joanna Young Shubart, who lives in the New York area, is a Broadway veteran, married and the mother of three.
Andee Friedlander Scioli of Omaha, a lawyer for the Kutak Rock firm, is married and has two children.
Other former “orphans” from the cast are now also in their late 30s and living full lives.
Dwayne Ibsen of Omaha, the director in '84, wrote after the reunion: “It was awesome from beginning to end. You've all become such lovely adults, and your talent has grown to perfection. I'm still reeling from the totally amazing evening.”
The cast included adults, too. And parents of the child performers played behind-the-scenes roles in making the show happen — five shows a week from Jan. 18 through July 28.
Its longevity may be a record for a locally produced show — 24 weeks and 127 performances. Another long-running show, “Nunsense,” was staged for 20 weeks at the old Firehouse Dinner Theater in 1987-88, and it was brought back in 1990 but with a new cast.
Regardless, in a town that produces and enjoys lots of live theater, that run of “Annie” holds a place in local history.
The Upstairs Dinner Theater opened in 1978 in a former ballroom and music studio in the old Lyric Building at 19th and Farnam Streets. It closed in 1991. The building was torn down and replaced with a parking garage.
The theater was owned by Norm and Louise Filbert and Norm and Eunie Denenberg. The 25-year-old producer of “Annie” and general manager of the theater was the Denenbergs' daughter, Debbie, a graduate of Stanford University and the Harvard Business School.
“The talent was top-notch, and I was young and energetic,” said Debbie Denenberg, who later spent 15 years in New York as a producer before returning to Omaha, where she is the mother of twins. “The business wasn't profitable until we produced 'Annie.'”
The business end of the show became a case study at Harvard, where Debbie has spoken — and did so again last fall.
“The lesson,” she said, “is that success comes not necessarily from broad strategy but from passion, hard work and implementation. It's a purely collaborative work. Theater is a place where all the parts come together and everybody's hearts intertwine.”
By all accounts, hearts intertwined at the reunion at the home of Andee and Anthony Scioli. Andee had organized the gathering after noting the return of “Annie” to Broadway, reasoning that tomorrows don't last forever.
Beth Asbjornson, whose 1984 role was Grace Farrell, secretary to Daddy Warbucks, played the piano at the reunion. Happi and Andee set the tone and touched the 50 or more attendees by singing a song about friendship — from “Wicked.”
I've heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them.
Joanna, who has appeared on Broadway in “Grease” and “The Drowsy Chaperone,” also sang in the Broadway touring production of “Les Misérables.”
At the reunion, she sang the “Les Miz” song by Eponine, “On My Own.”
All three of the Annies said the Omaha production and the adults and children they worked with had a major influence on their lives.
“I had never done theater before,” Joanna said. “We were a lucky group of kids because there were so many kind and wonderful adults who were good to us and showed us what fun it could be. It gave me a buzz for acting.”
In the next breath, she chuckled and said she sometimes wishes she could get rid of the buzz because acting is a hard business. The applause is great, but the work and the auditioning and suddenly being out of work because a show closes can make it at times — as in the lyrics of “Annie” — a hard-knock life.
Andee, who has litigated cases in court, said theater helped give her confidence.
“I loved everything about 'Annie,'” she said. “Participating in theater gives children so much opportunity to grow as a person and become a confident speaker.”
She recalled signing autographs for other children after matinees, and her father telling her to enjoy it — because it probably never would happen later in life. True enough: “I've never been asked for an autograph after winning a case.”
Happi said “Annie” was “a stepping stone, a launching pad. It's the thing that really inspired me to keep going. It was an instant love of arts.”
This summer, she and her husband, a music teacher, will perform in a production of “Annie.” She will be Miss Farrell and he will play Daddy Warbucks.
“It will be a full-circle moment,” she said.
|FROM THE NOTEBOOK|
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.
Ibsen, who directed the Omaha show and for years has owned a costume gallery, surprised the former orphans by giving them their 1984 costumes — with their names still inside. Costumes that once hung to their ankles now were pulled on, serving as mere tops.
They sang “Hard-Knock Life.” Everyone attending, including relatives, joined in on “You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” “Easy Street,” “We Got Annie,” and all the other tunes.
Andee said the evening was “magical, electrifying.”
And everyone partied like there was no tomorrow.
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