Behind the scenes at Duluth's NorShor Theatre, the cast and crew behind the holiday show have taken to referring to the two alternating stars as Mary Kate and Ashley Olson.

“We don’t get it,” said Sofia Salmela, 14.

“Everyone gets it except us,” said Cadence Graber, 12.

The actors who are similar, but so, so different, are splitting the title role in the Duluth Playhouse’s production of “Annie” that opens Saturday and runs through Dec. 19 at the downtown venue. They aren’t the only ones going halfies — the orphan-heavy show divided its young actors into two casts, with one labeled red and one green — to manage the company’s foray into a five-week run.

Sofia Salmela, left, is Annie and Gabe Mayfield is Oliver Warbucks in the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Sofia Salmela, left, is Annie and Gabe Mayfield is Oliver Warbucks in the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

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“The part of Annie is a behemoth of a role — it’s the King Lear of roles for young actors,” said Playhouse artistic director Phillip Fazio, who is directing the musical.

There is so much stage time, powerhouse songs, large dance numbers and a vast emotional range.

“I thought it was only fair to a young actor,” he said. “The role is an 11-year-old. Casting someone around that age, it’s asking a lot of them.”

The Playhouse’s production, which also stars Gabrial Mayfield Sr. as Daddy Warbucks, Christina Stroup as Miss Hannigan, Haley Methner as Grace Farrell, Andy Frye as Rooster and Dorian Brooke as Lily St. Regis, has 23 shows, the longest stretch at the theater in recent history. It’s an experiment, according to Fazio, who noted that the holiday production tends to fare well with theater fans. Also for the first time: swag. T-shirts and winter caps were already on display before a recent dress rehearsal.

Among the newbies on the stage: Makenna, a curly-haired Sandy that might be part-poodle. The 22-pound dog, which local orthopedic surgeon Kydee Sheetz got while volunteering at a hospital in Africa in 2016, is friendly and has a way with popping onto its back legs with its paws out, a trick Sheetz suspected the dog perfected to get treats.

Sofia Salmela, who is playing Annie, is seen with her dog, Sandy, played by Makena, during a run-through for the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. 
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Sofia Salmela, who is playing Annie, is seen with her dog, Sandy, played by Makena, during a run-through for the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

‘Matilda’ meets ‘Annie’

Neither Sofia nor Cadence has played Annie, but both have experience with a role that Fazio describes as “alternate-universe Annie”: Matilda.

The former is a hopeful orphan in 1930s New York City. She’s swept up by the in-house team of the uber-rich Daddy Warbucks to spend the holiday season in a big house and a whole crew to manage the chores she is usually assigned by Miss Hannigan back at the orphanage.

Matilda is book smart and street smart, the misunderstood youngest child in a family of dolts who don’t understand her. Luckily, she’s taken in by a kind teacher.

Haley Methner, as Grace Farrell, from left, Sofia Salmela, as Annie, and Gabe Mayfield, as Oliver Warbucks, practice for the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. 
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Haley Methner, as Grace Farrell, from left, Sofia Salmela, as Annie, and Gabe Mayfield, as Oliver Warbucks, practice for the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Both, said Sofia, are children rebelling against a big scary adult and living their dream. And the experience of playing the little-bit-naughty Matilda has seasoned the role of Annie, according to the director.

“(Sofia and Cadence) bring a bit more sharp edges to their Annie, which I think is influenced by their previous versions of Matilda,” Fazio said.

Sofia was one of three Matildas cast in the title role of the musical based on the Roald Dahl classic that played at the Children’s Theatre in Minneapolis in 2019. She earned kudos from Dominic Papatola, a notoriously tough freelance critic who writes for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He credited her with having a big singing voice, solid acting chops and fearlessness in the spotlight.

“Leavened by honesty, humanity and the sort of good direction that protects the young’uns from looking like hard-smiling automatons,” Papatola said in his review.

Isabella Birchhill, from left, Paisley Kern and Mia Patronas play orphans in the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. 
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Isabella Birchhill, from left, Paisley Kern and Mia Patronas play orphans in the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Cadence, too, was Matilda — in the Duluth Playhouse Family Theatre production that was cut short in March 2020. Much of the cast, including Cadence, returned to reopen it in October. (Fun fact: Cadence was to originally split the role with Lussi Salmela, Sofia’s sister.)

As Matilda, Cadence was larger than life and plucky, wild haired and mischievous — with big vocals and an ease with movement.

Annie and Annie

Sofia, a freshman at Duluth East who came to theater via her older sister, is described by Fazio as an “old soul,” like a seasoned Broadway performer, cool as a cucumber. She’s Patty LuPone, he said, minus the diva.

“You tell her what to do and it’s no problem,” Fazio said.

She most recently played Amaryllis in “The Music Man” at Chanhassen.

Cadence describes her counterpart as unique — with her own way of doing things.

“You’re one of those people you want to be around,” she told her friend before a recent dress rehearsal.

Christina Stroup plays Miss Hannigan and Paisley Kern plays Molly in the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. 
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Christina Stroup plays Miss Hannigan and Paisley Kern plays Molly in the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Cadence’s first major roles on the Duluth Playhouse’s mainstage were Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol” and Chip in “Beauty and the Beast.” The Ordean East seventh grader also dances at Madill Performing Arts Center in Duluth. Fazio said she is a natural and a powerhouse.

“The second she’s in the room, she clicks into Annie,” he said. “It’s like slipping on a glove that fits perfectly.”

Sofia described her counter-Annie as bubbly on- and offstage.

“She’s silly and awkward and really fun to watch,” she said. “She’s got an amazing voice. She fits the character so well.”

For the production, the young actors are divided into two casts, both with their own six fellow orphans and, according to the stage lore, their own secret handshakes. During the rehearsals, they have sometimes acted alongside each other and sometimes alternated practicing each scene.

Blocking and choreography is the same for both squads, but they have been allowed to add their own nuances.

Kyle McMillan, as Drake, pinches Annie, played by Sofia Salmela, while Haley Methner, as Grace Farrell, watches during a run-through for the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. 
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Kyle McMillan, as Drake, pinches Annie, played by Sofia Salmela, while Haley Methner, as Grace Farrell, watches during a run-through for the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Cadence and Sofia's shared music teacher, Christina Stroup, is the tottering and comically unkind Miss Hannigan, a role she plays with subtle Carol Burnett-isms and a booze-soaked looseness, like she is in a constant battle with gravity.

“I would say Sofia’s Annie is a bit more grounded,” she said. “Naturally, she has more tomboy energy to her. She’s more mischievous in the role, which is so much fun.

“She brings a little more sense of maturity to the role and it really juxtaposes nicely.”

Cadence, she said, plays Annie cutely, with wonder and excitement.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” Stroup said. “Honestly, I think people should see it twice.”

The Duluth Playhouse practices for its production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. 
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
The Duluth Playhouse practices for its production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

If you go

  • What: Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie"
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, Nov. 20-Dec. 19
  • Where: NorShor Theatre, 211 E. Superior St., Duluth
  • Tickets: duluthplayhouse.org

Christa Lawler is a features reporter at the News Tribune. She can be reached at clawler@duluthnews.com.

Sofia Salmela, as Annie, practices for the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. 
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Sofia Salmela, as Annie, practices for the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Christina Stroup, from left, as Miss Hannigan, Dorian Brooke, as Lilly St. Regis, and Andy Frye, as Rooster Hannigan, perform "Easy Street" during practice for the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. 
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Christina Stroup, from left, as Miss Hannigan, Dorian Brooke, as Lilly St. Regis, and Andy Frye, as Rooster Hannigan, perform "Easy Street" during practice for the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Sofia Salmela, left, and Cadence Graber, seen before a run-through for the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. 
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
Sofia Salmela, left, and Cadence Graber, seen before a run-through for the Duluth Playhouse production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune