Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December 2005
Exactly thirty years ago this month I was stage managing a workshop production of a musical based on Harold Gray’s legendary comic strip, Little Orphan Annie. It was a fun little show, and the author/director taught me a lot about Gray and the strip’s development over time. She felt strongly about Annie as a feminist role model. We played to packed houses, (who doesn’t love Little Orphan Annie?) and it looked like the show might have a future when the bad news came - Gray’s estate had rescinded the rights. Another musical version with more money and bigger names attached was in the works. It was a bitter disappointment.
When Annie opened on Broadway eighteen months later, I was busy sticking pins in voodoo dolls of Charles Strouse (composer), Martin Charnin (lyricist), and Thomas Meehan (librettist). We all know that my evil efforts were in vain, but in a fit of great loyalty I have refused to attend a production of the show, until now.
So not only did I enter the Cohoes Music Hall with the usual curmudgeonly critic’s attitude towards musicals featuring little girls, dogs, and Christmas trees, but I entered with an ancient grudge. This had better be one darned good production of Annie to make ME write a positive review.
This is one darned good production of Annie.
Opening night of Annie in Cohoes was truly a gala affair. The evening began with a pre-show announcement by New York State Assemblymember Ron Canestrari, with C-R Productions’ Jim Charles (who directed this production) and Tony Rivera at his side, that he had secured $50,000 of public funding for the Music Hall. The thrill of that moment carried across the orchestra pit and through the curtain and energized the excellent cast into an all-holds-barred performance that thrilled the large and enthusiastic audience in attendance.
I wouldn’t direct Annie if you paid me big money, what with all those little girls (and their inevitable stage parents) and a dog, not to mention the numerous sets, the very idea sends me screaming. Jim Charles is to be commended not only for his bravery, but for finding the right little girls (who, I am sure, all have splendid parents) and a darling dog whose program bio is longer than most of the actors’.
I saw Lawson Young as Annie, a role she shares with Kelly Swint. Young was admirable in the part, singing lustily, looking adorable, and handling Sandy with aplomb. It is hard enough to stand alone on a stage and sing over a full orchestra when you are eleven or so without having to hold a dog while you’re doing it! I am sure Swint is equally charming in the role.
Sandy is played by a two-year-old female Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever named Cinnstars Windy Tamarac - Windy to her friends and family – an exceptionally beautiful and well-trained animal who bestowed happy kisses on all the actors in the Hooverville scene and seemed fascinated by the orchestra while Young belted out Tomorrow. If there could be any complaint about this canine performer it would be that she looked a little too beautiful to be the scruffy mutt Sandy, maybe a little judiciously applied mousse would give her that slept-in-a-dumpster look rather than the Best-in-Show gloss her coat currently sports.
The orphans are all absolutely darling and they sing and dance up a storm in their two big numbers Hard Knock Life and You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile. Eight-year-old Zoe McGreevy stole every scene as Molly, the youngest orphan, and Alison Lehane as Tessie got some good laughs with her repeated wails of “oh my goodness”.
As long as none of the children flee the stage in tears and the dog doesn’t do anything embarrassing against the tormenters you are pretty much home free with Annie. But Charles and company have much more than mere adequacy up their sleeves. The cast is top notch from stem to stern and every one of them gives 110% to the endeavor.
Monica M. Wemitt is hilariously over the top as Miss Hannigan, the drunken and desperate matron of the skid row orphanage where we first meet Annie. Wemitt makes the character sympathetic as well as pathetic, allowing the humor to override the horror of Miss Hannigan, and the girls’, situation. I swear I saw her literally chewing on the scenery at one point, but Miss Hannigan is a cartoon character after all. These things are allowed.
Supporting Miss Hannigan in her evil shenanigans are her brother Daniel “Rooster” Hannigan (Byron DeMent) and Lily St. Regis (Anne Bloemendal), who end up masquerading as Annie’s long lost parents in order to receive a reward “Daddy” Warbucks has posted. Of course they are foiled in their plans and a happy ending is achieved. But along the way DeMent and Bloemendal bring high spirited fun and lively dancing to the proceedings.
Don Circle, Jr. tackles the thankless task of playing Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks. I say thankless because Warbucks is neither an adorable prepubescent female orphan nor a deliciously comic villain. Heck, he’s not even a dog! He is just an upright, uptight, Republican billionaire who happens to come along to make Annie’s dreams come true. Every time Circle launched into a scene all the small children in the audience had to go to the bathroom (I am not kidding) which is no reflection on his performance but the inevitable result of playing the straight man. I personally liked him in the part, finding his interpretation both warm and believable. This is possibly the only show that demands that the hunky leading man sing love songs with a minor. Circle met the challenge with nary a hint of the Ick Factor creeping in. We tend to ignore the fact that Oliver Warbucks himself was orphaned by the time he was Annie’s age. Circle helped me understand that Warbucks’ relationship with Annie fulfilled his own deep need for family.
I have never understood the need for the character of Grace Farrell, other than to provide an attractive mature female for “Daddy” Warbucks to interact with so that we know he doesn’t have a thing for little girls. I know that it is considered a coveted role, and Karla Shook does her usual capable job in it, but to me Grace is just a convenient invention of Meehan’s to move the plot along. She is certainly not an original comic strip creation of Harold Gray’s.
Harold Lincoln Gray (1894-1968) spent 45 years of his life writing and drawing Little Orphan Annie which ranks as one of the most popular comic strips of all time, in fact a version is still in production today. The protagonist was originally a boy named Otto, but Gray soon switched genders and struck gold.
That the stage Annie bears little resemblance to her pen-and-ink counterpart is no secret. The comic strip Annie was one tough chick. Although adopted by “Daddy” Warbucks soon after her comic strip debut in 1924, she spent little time living a life of luxury. Annie and Sandy were most likely to be found wandering the country fighting Nazis and helping the down-trodden. Strouse, Charnin, and Meehan obviously had Gray’s scrappy Annie seriously confused with that relentlessly optimistic orphan Pollyanna, heroine of the sappy but wildly popular 1913 Eleanor H. Porter novel of the same name.
Annie is a big Broadway show, and it is its size that is the most challenging for Cohoes. Scenic designer Scott Aranow has done his best with a modest budget on a small (by Broadway standards) stage. There are times when he succeeds quite nicely, but overall the scenery looks cheap and amateurish compared with the high level of vocal, musical, and acting performances delivered. Some pieces of the attractive and highly functional set for My Fair Lady have been recycled, but they look a little worse for the wear.
Charles and Khryn Diotte, on the other hand, have done nicely with the costumes, although they are a little wobbly on their period. Until Annie arrives at the Warbucks mansion and gets gussied up, she is dressed in quite acceptable Depression Era rags. But her “party clothes” look more like something out of a Dick & Jane Primer of the 1950’s. She doesn’t don her famous red and white dress until the last scene, and, in some productions, she doesn’t put on the curly red fright wig until late in the show either but since both Young and Swint are blondes they wear the curls from the start. Yes, it is a wig, and yes, you sit through the first five minutes of the show wondering what crawled up on that poor child’s head and died, but you get used to it.
Shook is credited with the choreography, which is both age appropriate for the various performers, and creates good movement on a relatively small and crowded stage.
A small but lively pit orchestra consisting of Graham Doig, synthesizer; Steve Lambert, trumpet; Raymond Jung, bass; John Van Voris, reeds; and Mary Rodriguez, drums/percussion, is led by Musical Director Thom Culcasi. Like the Music Hall itself, the orchestra radiates a kind of Broadway-in-Miniature panache that is exciting and professional.
Strouse’s score is both jazzy in a loose-jointed manner and staccato for emphasis in the angrier numbers. Yes, people suffer righteous indignation in Annie - the orphans because they’re stuck with Miss Hannigan, Miss Hannigan because she’s stuck with the orphans, the residents of Hooverville because they have been stripped of their money by the stock market crash and their dignity by the subsequent depression. If only Charnin, Meehan, and Strouse had followed through on this period appropriate angst, which is far more in keeping with the spirit of Gray’s strip, in the weaker second act they could have created a show that was more than just a sentimental favorite, and a heroine who gave little girls a larger goal than merely singing on a stage.
Annie, presented by C-R Productions, runs weekends through December 18 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. The show runs two hours and forty-five minuets with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-237-7999 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005