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With talent and animation, there's no stage needed for virtual "Annie, Jr." production

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'Annie, Jr.'

Bedford producer Marc Murai’s virtual production of “Annie, Jr.” goes up July 30-31 and Aug. 1. Though it looks as if the cast members are sharing a stage, cast members actually performed their parts individually and socially distant during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Bedford producer is about to unveil his first fully virtual theater production — a unique project that involved 37 cast members, a green screen and some animated sets.

The virtual production is different from other virtual plays since the technology used makes the musical appear as if all of the actors are on a stage together, when in fact the footage was filmed separately with each actor alone to allow for social distancing and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My primary motivation was to give kids the opportunity to still perform during this horrible pandemic and also be able to perform with full production values — not just performing lines into a webcam like we have seen for many of these virtual events,” said Marc Murai, the executive producer, director and editor of the “Annie, Jr.” production that will be streamed live at the end of the month.

Auditions began this past January and the cast practiced all of its content using Zoom, including choreography and music lessons.

“This show was really fun,” said cast member Megan Labrie of Bedford. “We had all recorded our lines alone, but to see everyone together in the final piece is exciting.”

Labrie, 12, said there were definitely some challenges associated with the acting, specifically while trying to react or respond to another actor who wasn’t even in the same room, she said.

“But I would do a show like this all over again. It has been so much fun,” said Labrie, who plays one of the orphans in the show. Her favorite scene, which she said is arguably one of the best songs in the show, is “It’s the Hard Knock Life.”

Murai’s project is being produced by the Manchester Community Theater Players, although there will be no live stage or live audience. Actors from all over southern New Hampshire are participating in the event, including Bria Tremblay of Andover who is playing the lead role of Annie.

“I am very excited. This has been such a long process,” said Tremblay, 11, adding it would sometimes take multiple hours to complete a short scene.

Tremblay’s entire family is in the musical, including her parents, Kyle and Mark, who are bell-ringers and body doubles for select roles, and her sister, Adalyn, who plays the dog, Sandy.

Bria Tremblay says she is most excited to see the final product come to life on the screen, and hopefully meet some of the actors she has worked with, face to face.

“‘The first musical I ever saw was ‘Annie’ when I was 10 years old,” said Murai. “I never get tired of the show. It always leaves me smiling at the end.”

In his version of “Annie Jr.,” a children’s book illustrator from Colorado, Rob Polivka, created all of the background art used in the virtual production.

“I was looking for someone to create background art where we would see everything illustrated except for the actors,” explained Murai. “It is like the cartoon strip is coming to life.”

In order to make it work, Murai said the virtual audience must believe that everyone is on the same stage together — even though they aren’t.

It’s a Hollywood-caliber production on a small budget that hasn’t been attempted elsewhere, according to Murai. The 37-member cast includes actors ages 8 to 84, and every song was pre-recorded, he said, adding each music number was filmed like a music video where the actors were lip syncing.

The process has taken about twice as long as a traditional on-stage performance, and Murai admits there has been a learning curve. He credits Kirk Wilson, the project’s audio engineer, for making the music and lines sound seamless and in sync, despite the individual recordings.

Wilson, who has been battling cancer and undergoing chemotherapy throughout the process, volunteered his professional services to make the musical a reality, Murai said.

“Annie, Jr.” will stream at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 30, and Saturday, July 31, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 1. Tickets are $20 each and may be purchased by visiting https://www.showtix4u.com/event-details/55157.

To get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the production, visit manchestercommunitytheatre.com and click on the video link.

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