Two volunteers, both who played the title role in Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s Annie in different productions fifteen years apart, get ready for The Sound of Music this holiday season.
Nicki (Hartley) Paarlberg, Civic’s 2002 Annie, takes part in the ensemble as a nun and the Baroness Elberfeld alongside her two young daughters, Eleanor and Anna, who play Gretl and Marta von Trapp. Taking on the role of Louisa Von Trapp is Ellie Brower, Civic’s most recent Annie from 2017. We wanted to chat with these two hardworking volunteers to get their read on their experiences with the beloved holiday show tradition, learn what they’ve been up to since they last played that iconic character, and hear what they’re most excited for in The Sound of Music, on stage from November 19 – December 19.
L: Nicki (Hartley) Paarlberg as Annie in 2002. R: Ellie Brower as Annie in 2017.
CIVIC: What made you want to come back to Civic to participate in the holiday show once again?
ELLIE: I love the Civic community. I’ve missed it since COVID and I love being back, especially to do the holiday show. Performing as Annie for the holiday show was truly an incredible experience. I’ll never forget it and know that I will get to make new memories with this production of The Sound of Music as well.
NICKI: My decision to return is twofold. One, I absolutely love the holiday show. It is such a special time here! My second reason for returning to Civic is the opportunity to do a show with both of my daughters. Over the last many years, when people would ask me, “Will you ever do theater again?” My response has always been, “I hope so, but not until one of my kids can do it with me.” The truth is, I have always been hesitant to be away from my family for such a big commitment! But now, I have the chance to share this experience with my girls and to introduce them to a place that is very special to me.
CIVIC: What have you been up to since Annie?
NICKI: I was admittedly old for the part of Annie. I played eleven year-old Annie when I was seventeen and in my senior year of high school… being very short certainly helped land me the role! So not long after Annie, I graduated and went on to Hope College. There, I completed a Fine Arts Composite Major for Elementary Education, which basically means I am certified to teach kindergarten through sixth grade with a special focus in the arts and incorporating the arts into my classroom. After graduating college, I married my husband Matt, and started a teaching job in Forest Hills. I taught second grade for seven years before deciding to stay home with my kids. The last several years have been full, raising Anna (10), Eleanor (7), and Wesley (4). I hope to return to the classroom someday, but for now I am so happy playing the role of mom!
ELLIE: After I played Annie at Civic I was cast the following year in a holiday National Tour called NOEL, The Musical. I was both the understudy to the lead role of Noel as well as in the ensemble and it was pretty incredible to be able to travel to so many cities around the country and perform. Since then, I’ve continued to perform at Civic and elsewhere and was playing the role of Matilda in Matilda, the Musical at Civic when the COVID shutdown started. I’ve also continued to take mandarin Chinese immersion classes and started college-level courses this year at Grand Valley while being a Freshman in high school.
L: The Paarlberg Family on Vacation. C: The company of the 2018 National Tour of Noel: The Musical. R: The Two “Noels”: Jena and Ellie.
CIVIC: What is a memorable moment or story from Annie?
ELLIE: Since I was only ten years old at the time, what sticks with me the most are the feelings and emotions I had while doing it. For instance, I can remember the excitement and nervousness of opening night and how excited I was when I got to work with our show’s dog, Abbie, who played Sandy. Playing games with the other orphans during rehearsal and how well we all got along is also something I remember well. Before each show, all of the orphans would sit on our beds on stage and chat before the show began. I can remember struggling with a quick change and having to sprint up the stairs to make my entrance on time. Most of all, I remember not wanting the show to end.
NICKI: My favorite scene in Annie was the “Cabinet Tomorrow,” when Annie sings the iconic song “Tomorrow” with FDR in the White House. During this song, I got to stand up on the table and sing. Isn’t it every young actress’ dream to stand up tall and belt their heart out to a full house?! A fun fact is that Deb Rockey was in that scene, and now we’re both in this production of The Sound of Music together all these years later. Another memorable moment for me was when our Director, Bruce Tinker, told me I had been cast as Annie. He didn’t say, “I’d like to offer you the role of Annie” or anything like that. Instead he said, very seriously, “How would you feel about dyeing your hair fire-engine-red?” And of course I almost screamed “YES, I’ll do that!”.
L: Nicki’s favorite moment as Annie. C: Ellie with Abbie as Sandy. R: Nicki with 2002 Annie and Sound of Music Director Bruce Tinker.
CIVIC: What are you most looking forward to with The Sound of Music?
NICKI: I’m not sure I can pick just one thing! I am excited for my kids to experience ALL of it with me. I am excited to continue building lasting relationships with the cast and crew. And I am excited for opening night – being in front of an audience is its own thrill!
ELLIE: I’m looking forward to tech week. You really start to see things come together and it starts to get really exciting as you get closer and closer to opening night!
CIVIC: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned since playing Annie?
NICKI: Always look for something to be grateful for. Focusing on gratitude makes life all that much better!
ELLIE: How unique it was to be ten years old and have the title role in such a big production. I was too young to appreciate that fully at that point. I’m a much more experienced performer now and have learned a lot through all of my theater experiences since then. I’m now able to look back on how that show really set me on a path to continue on in the theater. With not being able to do shows since COVID, I’ve really come to realize how much I’ve missed performing and how important traditions like the holiday show are. It brings families and our community together and it’s something everyone can get excited about and celebrate.
L: Nicki (center) in rehearsal for The Sound of Music. R: The young actors who portray the Von Trapp children in rehearsal, including Ellie (Right) and Nicki’s daughters (center).
CIVIC: Speaking of bringing people together and gratitude alike, the Civic holiday show is a long-standing tradition in our community… what does the Civic holiday show mean to you?
NICKI: The same way I get nostalgic for the holidays, being in this production reminds me of all the years I performed in, or worked backstage for, the holiday show. There is a special energy and excitement to this particular time of year, and that certainly isn’t lost in the theater! I know we will make wonderful memories and I hope through this show we will share joy with our community.
ELLIE: Realizing that this long-standing holiday tradition has been bringing families, performers, and volunteers together for generations really makes me feel honored to continue something that has meant so much to so many. I look forward to a day when I can return as an adult and see this wonderful tradition continue.
CIVIC: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
ELLIE: I’ve made such great friends and learned so much in my time playing Annie and other shows and roles at Civic. It’s a really special place and the people and theatre community are what really makes it so special.
NICKI: I can’t believe it’s been nineteen years since I’ve been on the Civic stage. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be back! I have been welcomed with open arms by ALL my friends both old and new. I am finding that once you are a part of the Civic family, you are a part of this family for life!
The Sound of Music opens November 19th at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit grct.org.