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Ray Routhier

Portland Press Herald staff writer Ray Routhier will try anything. Once. During 20 years at the Press Herald he’s been equally attracted to stories that are unusually quirky and seemingly mundane. He’s taken rides on garbage trucks, sought out the mother of two rock stars, dug clams, raked blueberries, and spent time with the family of bedridden man who finds strength in music. Nothing too dangerous mind you, just adventurous enough to find the stories of real Mainers doing real cool things.

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Posted: April 26, 2017

As ‘Annie’ rolls into town, the head carpenter – a Maine native – takes us backstage

Written by: Ray Routhier
The current touring production of "Annie" is coming to Maine 40 years after the show first opened on Broadway in 1977. The original show, based on the comic strip "Little Orphan Annie," ran for 2,377 performances and won seven Tony Awards. The show was made into a movie three times, for the big screen in 1982 and 2014 and for TV in 1999.

The current touring production of “Annie” is coming to Maine 40 years after the show first opened on Broadway in 1977. The original show, based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” ran for 2,377 performances and won seven Tony Awards. The show was made into a movie three times, for the big screen in 1982 and 2014 and for TV in 1999. Photo by Joan Marcus

Thanks partly to his skill at building things that look like they came out of a 1930s orphanage, Christopher Belanger of Lewiston has been able to see the world.

Belanger, 23, is head carpenter for the current Broadway national tour of the classic musical “Annie,” which plays Portland’s Merrill Auditorium on Thursday. The performance is being presented by Portland Ovations.

Belanger has been with the production for two years, working on some 400 performances in theaters around the world. He spent more than a month in Indonesia and Singapore.

Chris Belanger is the head carpenter for "Annie."

Chris Belanger is the head carpenter for “Annie.” Photo courtest of Amy Katz

“I love the road and the experiences, and I love musical theater,” said Belanger, a graduate of Lewiston High School. “I get giddy inside every time I hear that overture (to start the show). I get butterflies.”

The current touring production of “Annie” is coming to Maine 40 years after the show first opened on Broadway in 1977. The original show, based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” ran for 2,377 performances and won seven Tony Awards. The story about a plucky orphan who melts the heart of a millionaire won over audiences, and the show’s best-known tune, “Tomorrow,” has become an anthem for optimism. The show was made into a movie three times, for the big screen in 1982 and 2014 and for TV in 1999.

So how did it translate for Indonesians?

“Oh, they loved it, they love musical theater there,” said Belanger. “But I think some of it, mentions of the Depression, I don’t think they really got.”

Head carpenter is a little bit of misnomer since Belanger deals with several different technical areas, including carpentry, wardrobe, props and crew safety. He also advances the shows, meaning he travels to theaters before the performance to make sure that the venue’s power and other utilities can meet the production’s needs. He works on the construction of sets and scenery, which in the case of “Annie” includes a grand staircase and a 17-foot-high Christmas tree.

During shows, he moves different pieces of scenery and props on stage. The biggest pieces, like the walls of the orphanage, with its bunk beds, or Daddy Warbucks’ home and grand staircase, roll and spin on tracks, but desks and chairs and other props are brought on stage by Belanger and other crew members.

Most of this is done between scenes or behind the curtain, so Belanger and the rest of the crew aren’t seen. At one point, Belanger has to walk on stage behind a character to get into place for an upcoming move. But he doesn’t want to say when this happens because he prides himself in not being seen.

“If the audience sees us, we’re not doing our jobs,” said Belanger.

The national tour of the classic musical "Annie" will be at Portland's Merrill Auditorium on Thursday. The production's head carpenter, Christopher Belanger, is a Maine native. Photos by Joan Marcus

The national tour of the classic musical “Annie” will be at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium on Thursday. The production’s head carpenter, Christopher Belanger, is a Maine native. Photo by Joan Marcus

For most evening shows, Belanger and others in the crew will arrive by 8 a.m. and have many of the props, scenery and tracks the scenery moves on in place by early afternoon. After lunch, they’ll finish and make sure everything is ready to go by show time. After the show, the crew immediately starts breaking down the scenery and props and loading the four, 53-foot-long trailer trucks. Breakdown takes about three hours.

Because Belanger and other crew members physically move pieces and scenery in and out every night, he says the job doesn’t get boring. “Because our movements are live, the show is the same, but the experience is different every night,” said Belanger. “The feeling from the audience really gets us going.”

Belanger got started in theater as an actor in musicals such as “Oliver!” in high school. He also acted in shows at the Lewiston-Auburn Community Little Theatre before heading off to college at Castleton University in Vermont. There, he was in more musicals, including “Chicago.”

But during his years being involved with musicals, Belanger found he liked the backstage jobs, particularly lighting, better than acting. In college, he focused his theater training on lighting and set his sights on a career in the technical side of theatrical productions. As a professional, he worked on a production of “42nd Street” briefly before landing his current job with “Annie” about two years ago. This will be his first time working as a professional with “Annie” in Maine, where friends and family can see what he does up close.

“I don’t take my job for granted,” said Belanger. “I’m very fortunate to be doing this.”


BROADWAY NATIONAL TOUR OF ‘ANNIE’
WHEN: 6 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Merrill Auditorium, 20 Myrtle St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $52 to $77
INFO: portlandovations.org

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