Book by Charles Keehan, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin
Directed by Lee Buckholz
Reviewed by Emily Pike
Entire contents are copyright © 2012, Emily Pike.  All rights reserved.
Elizabeth Loos, Megan Bliss & Matthew Brennan in Annie.
Photo courtesy of Derby Dinner Playhouse.
The musical Annie, with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin and libretto by Thomas Meehan, is loosely based on the popular Depression-era Harold Gray cartoon strip Little Orphan Annie and was originally produced on Broadway in 1977. It won seven Tony Awards; enjoyed a six-year Broadway run; and has since given rise to countless touring, regional and community theatre productions around the country and the world. (A Broadway revival is due this fall.)

It is remarkable how appropriate this Broadway favorite, set in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, is to the national climate of today. As producer Bekki Jo Schneider mentioned in a (particularly well-done) curtain speech of Derby Dinner’s current production, the unemployment statistics, wealth gap and widespread pessimism mentioned throughout the play are uncannily similar to our modern socioeconomic environment. The key, however, is to look to our next generation for the same optimism and hope that little Annie is able to bring to the adults in her life.

For those of you unfamiliar with this play, the story follows 11-year-old Annie as she escapes the hard-knock life of a New York City orphanage through a chance invitation to spend the Christmas holiday season at the home of billionaire tycoon Oliver Warbucks. Annie’s boundless optimism and indomitable spirit soon capture Warbucks’ heart and prompt him to arrange for her adoption. But when he learns that Annie’s parents could still be alive, Warbucks selflessly gives up his own hopes of having Annie for a daughter and launches a national search. This catches the attention of Annie’s nemesis, orphanage headmistress Ms. Hannigan, along with her smarmy brother Rooster and his flavor-of-the-week gal pal Lily. They devise a plan for Rooster and Lily to pose as Annie’s parents using information that only Ms. Hannigan knows so that they can share a three-way split of the handsome reward Warbucks has offered. Everything comes to a head at Warbucks’ Fifth Avenue mansion on Christmas Eve, when identities and old secrets are finally revealed and we learn what Annie’s past is and what her future will hold.

Derby Dinner’s cast is filled with local actors of all ages and levels of experience, all of whom do a fine job of telling the story clearly and enjoyably. Still, there were a few too many missed opportunities for character development that together could have amounted to a stronger story arc from beginning to end and a bolder expression of the point-of-view offered in Schneider’s curtain speech.

The role of Ms. Hannigan can present a tremendous set of shoes for any actress to fill, having been immortalized by the inimitable Carol Burnett in the 1979 Columbia Pictures film version; though in this production, Elizabeth Loos plows through any imagined confidence barriers, pulling no comedic punches and milking the material for all it is worth. Her performance does feel a bit self-indulgent at times – but, then again, so is Ms. Hannigan. Fully to Loos’s credit are the strong choices she has made, her unwavering commitment to them and the fact that the audience loves her. As mentioned, however, there are some notable opportunities for character development that seem to get lost in the shuffle, such as a moment when Ms. Hannigan sincerely hesitates at Rooster’s plans for Annie, yet giddily returns to song and dance seconds later as if nothing happened. Still, Loos’s performance is a gratifyingly outrageous interpretation of this iconic role.

Jeff March as Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks looks every inch the part and has a gorgeous singing voice, but on the whole, his acting was a bit too one-note. He starts out fairly likeable and ends up more so by the final curtain, diminishing the potential arc of this character. March’s moment-to-moment work is good, as are his pacing and sense of who Warbucks is at heart; but he does not take enough of a journey. There is too little of the brusque, gruff, hard-hearted business man when first we meet Warbucks to be able to appreciate how completely he is won over and transformed by the spunky, optimistic, utterly foreign presence of little Annie.

To be fair, part of March’s problem undeniably lies in the casting of the title role. While actress Lauren Petrey certainly possesses talent and a strong singing voice, she is unfortunately not well-cast here; the pink elephant in the theatre is that this actress is not a child, and it is difficult to pretend that she is. Petrey is a 14-year-old high school sophomore, and while she is small for her age, smaller does not equal younger. Even among today’s 11-year-olds it would be difficult to find someone with the sheer, unadulterated, quintessentially childlike enthusiasm that is Annie’s trademark – let alone expect a modern-day adolescent to still emanate this quality at the apprehensive age of 14. Petrey’s Annie is not the plucky, cute, optimistic little girl the script calls for but rather a sweet, strong, conscientious young lady. To extend a casting analogy, she is more on the Judy Garland than the Shirley Temple side – and no matter how much we all love Judy, the role of Annie wouldn’t have suited her well either. Petrey is not unenjoyable to watch. But the Annie-Warbucks relationship never quite attains the dynamic called for by the script because a 14-year-old actress is hard-pressed to act her way back to 11 years old, and a grown adult cannot relate to a 14-year-old girl the same way he or she would to a child. There are certainly instances in theatre where a three-year age difference would not matter, but this is not one of them.

Young Petrey should not take this as a criticism, however, but rather as an invitation to build on the work she is doing and to explore areas farther outside of her natural range. She can’t fix a casting error, but that is okay. This role is a great opportunity for her as an actress to practice stretching her boundaries.

Other performances include solid work from Colette Delaney as Mr. Warbucks’ sophisticated secretary Grace; a Lily St. Regis with just the right combo of ditz and cheap glam from Megan Bliss; and a chorus of impressively precise orphans. Matthew Brennan stands out as Rooster Hannigan, Ms. Hannigan’s greasy, beanpole ex-con of a brother with a taste for the quick-and-easy. His dialect is appropriate, his movement and physical presence are spot-on, and his words and interactions consistently feel spontaneous and believable. This is a role both well-cast and well-executed. Props to Brennan for a job well done.

On the whole, while admittedly peppered with noticeable flaws, Derby Dinner’s production is still a pleasant and likeable piece of entertainment. While its shortcomings are evident and not ignorable, they do have the good fortune of being easily forgivable. The script and story themselves are good enough to shine through any minor mishandling. Plus, it is too difficult not to enjoy a production where the cast is so clearly dedicated to and excited about what they are doing. Actors Theatre of Louisville or PNC Broadway In Louisville this show is not; but Annie at Derby Dinner still offers a lovely evening of dinner theatre that is well worth the price of a ticket.

Oh, and not for nothing – the food is fantastic. Do yourself a favor and try the Hummingbird Cake.

July 3 – August 12, 2012
Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, IN 47129
Tickets (812) 288-8281