Very early in the Pittsburgh CLO production of "Annie," the optimistic orphan meets up with the adorable dog Sandy and launches into her big number, "Tomorrow," which is interrupted by a brief encounter with a New York policeman.
From there, it's full speed ahead for 12-year-old Johanna Loughran, in her first starring role on the Benedum stage, and a chance to watch from the wings for 72-year-old Paul Palmer, in his 33rd season with Pittsburgh CLO.
Johanna began studying voice before her age hit double digits and has been attending the CLO Academy for five years. Mr. Palmer has done a variety of performing, including singing the national anthem for the Penguins' first eight seasons. Stage work, though, always has been a sideline to his other jobs -- some combo of teacher, football coach and musical theater director at Dormont (ended in 1969), Munhall (now Steel Valley) and North Allegheny high schools, and later, sales and marketing for the 3M Company here and for 24 years in Minnesota.
Mr. Palmer and his wife, Paula ("Yes, it's Paul and Paula), have returned to the area often, to visit family and for CLO jobs (the most recent two summers ago in "The Student Prince"). He missed last season when he slipped on an icy driveway and was sidelined with a badly broken leg, but he's back for "Annie" and will soon be back for good -- he's closing on a house in Hampton.
He says often, "I'm the luckiest guy in the world," and explains, "I've missed only a few seasons since 1975. Here I am, and I get to work with these people who are so incredible, share a little time with them, rub shoulders with greatness."
He's excited to be working with "Annie" stars Sally Struthers for the first time and Conrad John Schuck again, and he offers an anecdote about his time onstage with Victoria Clark, now a Tony-winning star of "The Light in the Piazza." Back in 2002, she was seated beside Mr. Palmer on a park bench, on the stage of the Benedum, singing "Is It a Crime?" from "Bells Are Ringing."
"She's singing to me, and I was thinking, 'Oh my God, if the people in the audience could see what's going on from my seat,' " Mr. Palmer said. "Again, I'm the luckiest guy in the world, to see this brilliant, brilliant performer do all these things. She was doing things only I could see. That's the genius of someone like that. She's amazing."
Mr. Palmer has seen star performers who have arrived and rising stars as well. He said he was eager to work with Johanna after witnessing "a wee little" of her audition.
"You just want to transfer whatever level of energy and knowledge into that sponge and, hopefully, she's going to grow and continue to move up the ladder," he said. "When you see these kids working, it takes me back to my teaching days at North Allegheny, when we started a musical theater program up there, with those kids, and to see the growth in them. A very rewarding experience."
Johanna, whose straight blond hair will be hidden under Annie's curly wig, has an uninhibited smile that reveals a mouthful of braces. She understands the opportunity presented by working with stage veterans, including Tim Hartman and Jeff Howell.
"I hope to learn from them because they've had all these achievements in life and I want to be like them," she said. "They've just inspired me to be better."
"Annie" was a part of the musical upbringing for the St. Bede's sixth-grader, who has been singing and dancing on her porch as far back as she can remember.
"I was very familiar with it," said Johanna, who was part of the ensemble in CLO's "Oliver" last season. "My mom would always talk about it because she always wanted to be [Broadway original Annie] Andrea McArdle."
The audition process had the desired outcome and also offered some insights into what's in store should Johanna stay in the theater.
"It was very intimidating because all these other girls wanted it and so did I. It was harder because they were my friends. I didn't want to hurt them and I didn't want them hurting me. It was very exciting when I got the role. I was speechless, I was so excited."
For Mr. Palmer, returning to the CLO brings back memories of 33 seasons, starting with 1975's "Guys and Dolls." Starting the musical theater program and performing for CLO "happened all at the same time. The first North Allegheny show was 'Brigadoon,' where our hearts forever lie," he recalled.
These days, he's happy to have eight lines and to be on a stage, any stage, even if it's with an adorable child and dog.
"It's home for me; I don't get nervous on stage," he said. "Once I step into the lights, I forget where I am; where I am is where that show is. I lose myself in it."
And what will it be like for Johanna Loughran to step into the Benedum lights for the first time as the star of a CLO show?
"It's going to be breathtaking," she said.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. First Published June 28, 2012 4:00 AM