BETTY J. COTTER, Special to The Day
Nina Pezzello of Waterford maintains an A average, sings in the church choir, practices the piano and is devoted to her three sisters. But when this 11-year-old steps onto the stage at Theatre By The Sea in Matunuck, R.I., on July 17, she will become Pepper - the loudest, meanest and brattiest resident of the Municipal Girls Orphanage in "Annie."
"Pepper is a hard role to play, because it's the opposite of me, because I'm all happy," Nina said after a recent rehearsal. "Pepper, she says 'shut up' to people, and I never would do that."
Nina, who has been dancing since she was 3 years old, may not identify with the role of Annie's nemesis in the musical based on the comic strip "Little Orphan Annie," but she is no stranger to the stage. She performed with the National Broadway Tour of "The Wizard of Oz" when it was at the Garde Arts Center in New London in 2010; in the Albano Ballet production of "The Nutcracker" in 2011; and in "Les Miserables" last year at Waterford High School.
She heard about the Theatre By The Sea auditions from Erin Sousa-Stanley, who directed Nina when she appeared last August in "The Wiz" with East Lyme Regional Theatre.
The call attracted throngs of girls, even though the part of Annie already had been cast in New York. She had to prepare a ballad and up-tempo song.
"I was going for anything they would put me in," she said.
After she made the final cut, Nina was surprised - and a little alarmed - when she was asked to step aside. But it turned out that the directors also wanted her to be understudy to the actress playing Annie.
This means that in addition to learning about a dozen speaking lines for the role of Pepper and three songs - "Hard Knock Life," "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" and "Maybe" - Nina must know all of Annie's lines, too, and be prepared to sing all of the show's songs.
Nina is not the only Connecticut girl in the show. Taylor Rose Donovan, 10, of Stonington also is a member of the ensemble. She dances with Kathleen Messina's Danceworks in Pawcatuck, but she, too, was referred to the auditions by Erin Sousa-Stanley after appearing with East Lyme Regional Theatre last summer.
She also appeared in the "Sound of Music" last year at Stonington High School, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" with Missoula Children's Theatre and with Mystic Ballet Summer Stage for two seasons.
"She's very excited," said her mother, Millie Donovan. "It's like a dream come true for her."
The show has a very tight window - two weeks of rehearsals followed by four weeks of performances - so both girls are busy singing and dancing in three-hour stretches at Theatre By The Sea's rehearsal studio in Wakefield, R.I.
Nina does not seem fazed at the prospect of actually stepping into the lead role of "Annie."
"I already know all of the songs," she said, noting that she performed some of them during a dance recital at the Garde with her dance school, the Kiks Dance Center of Uncasville. During rehearsals, she pays close attention not only to the stage directions for Pepper, but for Annie as well.
With an infectious smile, Nina is more sweet than precocious, and her mother, Debra Pezzello, makes it clear that all this acting, singing and dancing is Nina's idea.
"My other kids danced, but not with the passion Nina has," she said. "I think it started for her, this Broadway acting thing, when we took her to see Radio City Music Hall's 'Christmas Spectacular.'"
Nina was 8. Debra elbowed her husband, James, as Nina watched Clara onstage with the Nutcracker.
"She was looking straight ahead, and she never moved and all of a sudden I saw a tear" running down her cheek, she said. "And after the show, she said, 'Mom, do you think I could ever be that girl?'"
Nina is not the sort of child, however, to leave such a dream to the playroom. She spent the next year getting ready for the "Nutcracker" auditions in New York and she joined the Albano Ballet troupe.
"Her goal was to get en pointe shoes," said her mother. "She's been en pointe now for a year and a half."
The following year Nina did audition for "The Nutcracker" in New York, with no expectations.
"I knew I wasn't going to get it, but I was just going into it with as much confidence as possible," she said. When she was cut, she simply walked out of the audition, smiling, and asked to go shopping.
All of this preparation makes for a full schedule. Nina dances on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. On Thursdays, she takes piano lessons. She also manages to fit in choir practice and CCD classes. Homework she does on the car ride to dance lessons, or afterwards.
"Her responsibility, first and foremost, is school work," said her mother. "She's (also) responsible for her bedroom, her bathroom and emptying the dishwasher."
Nina's three sisters - Olivia, 18, Amanda, 27, and Jamie, 29 - are all out of the house now, and Nina has a niece, Violet, 2, and a nephew, Parker, 6, Jamie's children.
"It's like I'm an only child," she said. "It's kind of hard. We have two empty rooms."
In her spare time - if there is such a thing - she likes to read and write, or watch "The Voice" on TV.
"My dream is to be on Broadway," Nina said. But for now, she'll have to settle for summer stock.