by Janet I. Martineau
“Annie,” the musical -- it’s supposedly a children’s show, right?
What with all those cute little orphan girls, a couple of dogs, adults being outwitted.
Heck, when I fell in love with it back in the late 1970s it was because it awoke the kid in me again, the naive and rebellious kid in me, and I was cheering those orphans on every time they ganged up on mean Miss Hannigan.
This time, with the Midland Center for the Arts production which played this past weekend and this coming weekend, well, wow, it sucker punched the adult in me and I got all emotional and teary eyed before I decided to belt out, and believe in, “Tomorrow” at its end.
It’s because, as director Bill Anderson wrote in his well-put program notes, this darn musical about life during the Great Depression rings far more true in today’s world than in the affluent 1970s when it debuted.
Gobs of us have lost our jobs (myself included). The angry song “Hooverville” might be reworded “Obamaville.” “Hard Knock Life” isn’t quite as funny anymore. And some of the lines Daddy Warbucks and President Roosevelt utter are sooooooo contemporary to today’s situation that is called a recession but plays more like a depression (and we heard the adult laughter at Sunday’s show when those lines hit home).
Which is my long and overly political way of saying, “Annie” played totally differently to me than it did 30 years ago -- but no less enjoyable, thanks to director Anderson and choreographer Kelli Jolly. And that is the test of a good musical, its relevancy through time and audience ages.
Yep, “Annie’s” not just a children’s show. In fact we might even argue that the older you are, the better it seems to play,
Aside from an anemic, unattractive, sometimes awkward and too center-focused set (thanks probably to some serious set design and set building issues at the center) and a distracting red wig on Annie that looks ever so cheap and fake, this production continues the short but impressive Anderson legacy.
It moves fast, what with the the cast members moving set pieces in and out as the action continues, and themselves entering and exiting quickly and gracefully. Not an ounce of stagnation anywhere.
The singing voices of Dale Bills as Daddy Warbucks and Jennifer Kennedy in her short Star-to-Be segment are outstanding (and kinda amusing since they are father and daughter).
Jolly’s choreography is ever-so-pleasing to the eye, in particular when the orphans do a Rockettes maneuver and also with the patterns in the “N.Y.C.” number. She just plain moves people well.
Performances are solid throughout, especially with the versatile 22-member ensemble playing various parts and yet always in character as if the story was real. They are, in many ways, the true strength of this production. We wish we could name them all.
And as for the excellent nine orphans, we were always pulled into watching Kostandi Stephenson, who put her whole body and soul into the part with marvelous expressions.
.... Carol Rumba as the boozy floozy Miss Harrigan, made to look the ugly hag she is not. Tons of line inflections, body English galore, fine singing voice as well. We’ve seen Hannigan played a variety of ways, and this one was delightfully mean.
.... Betsy Miller as Annie, a mere 10 with stage savvy beyond those years (especially when dealing with the reluctant Sandy the dog) and great expressions. Sometimes her singing voice was a little tenuous, but good grief she is only 10.
... Adam Gardner as Rooster for his rubber body and great voice in “Easy Street” and ability to nicely play a character within a character.
.... The aforementioned Bills, so in tune with Daddy Warbucks that to us he IS Daddy Warbucks.
... Kyle Bagnall in the short Bert Healy radio show host role, Healy being a bit overdramatic and goofy.
Adding to the enjoyment are numerous sight gags (the Warbucks staff member with the phone, trying to keep up with a pacing Warbucks for one), the fine array of period costuming, and Jim Hohmeyer and his orchestra in the pit.