Julia Nicole Hunter Comes Home to Tennessee, Playing Grace Farrell in ANNIE

Riverdale High School Theater Teachers Mary Ellen and Matt Smith Among 'Family' Welcoming Her Home

By: Mar. 27, 2024
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Julia Nicole Hunter Comes Home to Tennessee, Playing Grace Farrell in ANNIE
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In the world of theater, there exists a sisterhood of women who can count an appearance as an orphan (maybe even THE orphan) in a production of Annie as either their first onstage role or one of their most vivid onstage performances. But for Murfreesboro native Julia Nicole Hunter, who now stars as Grace Farrell in the national touring company of the seven-time Tony Award-winning musical coming to  Tennessee Performing Arts Center this week, her current role as Oliver Warbucks’ faithful assistant marks her first time ever in the show.

“I never did Annie! I saw the movie, but never did the show until now,” she confesses.

Annie (Non-Equity)
Julia Nicole Hunter, Rainier (Rainey) Trevino, Georgie
and Christopher Swan in Annie.

And now that she’s delighting audiences as Grace – not to mention treading the boards with a coterie of spunky, precocious orphans – she  freely admits: “Annie is the show I never knew I needed. Grace Farrell was not a role I ever coveted, but once we started rehearsals and everything that means, I realized that Annie is everything I’ve ever needed.”

While coming to that realization, Hunter gives credit to director Jen Thompson (whose role as an orphan in Annie was her first Broadway credit) has taken the production “back to the original, authentic Annie people have come to know and love.”

“What’s not to love about Annie? It’s has Christmas, dogs and kids,” she exclaims.

Prior to taking on the role of Grace Farrell, Hunter spent time performing on cruise ships, which is not unlike touring the country with a big cast, performing a well-known and much-beloved musical in different cities and venues. In addition, she’s played roles in productions of In The Heights, The Color Purple and Nunsense.

“Of course, there are days when you just don’t feel like doing a show, but the moment the kids come in to the theater, your attitude changes,” Hunter says.

The youngsters in the national touring company “really love the show” and their energy is contagious: “They teach us something new every day – we learn things from them. And I think it’s so rewarding. Their enthusiasm let us see the show in a new way. We have just fallen in love with them, they’re so earnest and so eager!”

Annie (Non-Equity)
The national touring cast of Annie.

On her first national tour, Hunter has found that every night in a different city or a different venue offers her the chance to discover something new about the show, her character and about bringing Annie to life for audiences well-familiar with the script and score. “Only just now after so long do I finally feel I know Grace – she’s got grit and she’s always one step ahead of Oliver Warbucks and Annie. The role of Grace is teaching me new things every day.”

What explains the continuing multi-generational appeal of Annie, which debuted on Broadway in 1977 and features music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin and a book by Thomas Meehan? “I think honestly it’s because Annie is that hopeful, optimistic little girl that we so desperately crave,” Hunter muses. “With everything we’re going through politically worldwide, Annie’s message of hope and optimism leaves you grinning from ear to ear.”

Annie runs Wednesday, March 27 through Saturday, March 30. For further ticket information, go to www.tpac.org.

Annie (Non-Equity)A graduate of Murfreesboro’s Riverdale High School, Julia Nicole Hunter is one of the scores of students who can lay claim to being “theater kids” of the school’s theater teachers Mary Ellen Smith and Matt Smith, who most recently have been hard at work on their production of The Little Mermaid.

“When Mary Ellen took over the theater program at Riverdale, she was so bubbly and enthusiastic, I felt like I had to be a part of her theater,” Hunter recalls. “And after I graduated, they have remained supportive of everything I do. In fact, when I performed in my first professional show in Philadelphia, Mary Ellen and Matt were there for my opening night!”

Mary Ellen and Matt  took time out their jam-packed schedules to offer some background about Julia, both then (as an aspiring and enthusiastic student actor) and now (as an accomplished professional actor):

Annie (Non-Equity)What’s your earliest memory of Julia in your theater program?

Mary Ellen Smith: Julia was in choir and wanted to do theatre. She always had her hair in a ponytail and wore a pink choir sweatshirt. She was so cute and always happy. I cast her when she was a junior as Sally in You’re A Good Man,Charlie Brown. She wanted to learn how to belt so I taught her and she’s done it ever since. She has always shined on stage.

How do you continue to support your students after they leave your nest?

Matt Smith: I think there are degrees to how we support them. Simplest level, we are always just a phone call away. Those that go into theatre as a profession, we try to attend as much and be supportive in that way whenever or wherever possible. We’ve travelled to Florida, Pennsylvania, Alabama and, of course, Nashville to see our “kids”.  For those that don’t do it as a profession but still want to participate, we offer an Alumni and Friends show every other year here at Riverdale.

What is your most important role in helping young talents to develop their skills?

Mary Ellen: we become their school parents.

Matt: We build a relationship based on honesty and trust. We earn their trust and are honest even if it’s not what they want to hear.

production photos by Evan Zimmerman of MurphyMade

Photo Credit: Katherine Lee