Stafford Township — A few days before her 10th birthday in late March, Annie Caravella received the best surprise gift. It arrived via email to her mother, Jaime, while Annie was asleep.
“My mom woke me up and we were on FaceTime with my dad, because he was already at work,” said Annie, still excited by the news a month later. “He told me to read the message, and after I read it I was so happy I almost cried. I was kicking my feet and screaming. It was that exciting.”
Following two days of open auditions, up against dozens of other young performers, and after waiting some three weeks for a response, Annie had been asked to take the lead role in Surflight Theatre’s upcoming production of “Matilda” this August. Of course, the answer was an emphatic “yes!”
“I’m ready for this,” she said. “I’m Matilda, and I’m really happy about it. This is what I’ve been working for my entire life.”
So, what does any girl do when the gift she’s been wanting for almost 10 years finally arrives?
“To celebrate my first lead role, my mom and I went to Starbucks,” she said. “I ordered my favorite drink, and when I was asked my name for the order, I told the girl behind the counter my name was Matilda. I still have the empty cup with ‘Matilda’ written on it.”
Of course, if she’s signing autographs in the show program after any of the productions, the mystery remains whether she’ll sign her birth name or “Matilda.” Perhaps both. But it’s very likely she’ll be signing autographs for years to come.
The All Saints Regional Catholic School student from the Ocean Acres section of Stafford Township seems to have been born to be a Broadway star. She began singing and acting at just 3 years old, and for much of the past seven years – after she first landed jobs for print ad campaigns with Cottonelle, Toys R Us and McCall’s Patterns in 2013, when she was 4 – Annie’s been singing and acting her way through various community theater, television and vocal projects.
In 2016, she did several TV segments for WPIX 11 News and “Access Hollywood” in New York, followed by another for “NBC First Look” in 2017, along with a national commercial spot for Nice ’N Clean Premium Wipes, and another commercial spot for a Subway and Disney promotion last year.
And while she may be a bit small for her age, thousands among the general public got a taste of her big voice at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood on July 2, 2017, when at 8 years old she sang the national anthem prior to the BlueClaws game (video of that performance available on YouTube).
“I wake up singing,” said Annie, who also can be heard as part of the “Animal Band” for the popular Toy Story apps for tablets and smartphones. “I love singing because I can let my feelings out when I sing. Singing is like my home. It’s where I’m most comfortable. I can really be me when I’m singing.”
That passion for singing, along with a deep desire to work hard at further developing her natural abilities – she’s a young perfectionist who would rather get things right the first time instead of doing them over and over – has propelled Annie into the theater as well.
Her first role, as Maggy Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol,” was at the Strand Theatre in 2015. Since then, she’s had roles in several productions with the Exit 82 Theatre Co. in Toms River and the Center Players Theatre Co. in Freehold, and she was part of the ensemble in Surflight’s recent production of “Elf.”
Days before she committed to the lead role for “Matilda” with Surflight, Annie was with vocal coach and performer Sal Dupree as part of a show to benefit the No You Cant’cer Foundation at Resorts Casino and Hotel in Atlantic City. Additionally, she works with acting coach Jenny Stodd at Starlight Performing Arts in Manahawkin.
“Singing and dancing is easy as long as I’m not bouncing up and down or doing any kind of crazy stuff, because that gets me out of breath and makes me sound weird,” said Annie, who’s asthmatic. “But I love doing it, and I work really hard at it. The stage is my happy place.”
Admittedly, she prefers the stage to being at school, even though she really enjoys history class. So, of course, when a performing opportunity comes up at school, she gravitates toward it. Before you see her in “Matilda” from Aug. 6 to 25, you can get a glimpse of her as Augustus Gloop in the upcoming All Saints production of “Willy Wonka Jr.” on May 17 and 18.
“Between school, vocal lessons, acting lessons, auditions and performances, I’m really busy,” Annie said. “But I love doing what I do, so even though it’s stressful, it’s a good kind of stressful. I like to push myself. I have to work my way up to Broadway.”
And despite being rejected for roles in several Broadway productions thus far, Annie keeps plugging away, doing as much as she can to gain more experience and develop into the performing star she’s intent on becoming.
“I’d love to have a role in ‘Frozen’ or ‘Matilda’ on Broadway someday,” she said. “Of course, I’d love to be Annie, since I was named after her and they wouldn’t have to worry about calling me by my actual name. I’d also love it if I could be Hermione Granger in ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.’ That would be a great role.”
But for now, Annie gets to play a character she identifies with quite well, Matilda Wormwood.
“She has a lot of personality. She has so much to say but also wants to keep it to herself,” Annie said. “She’s calm but mysterious. You never know what she’s going to do next. And she’s little. But she proves that even if you’re little, you can do a lot.”
For more information or to get tickets for Roald Dahl’s musical “Matilda” in August, visit surflight.org.
— David Biggy