Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Martin Charnin
Book by Thomas Meehan
Directed by Katie Maras Haulter
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2017 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
Incredibly, I had never seen a production of Annie until this production from Clarksville Little Theatre. Of course, the 40-year-old musical has become such an iconic chestnut that I somehow am familiar with the plot and several songs, so that very little of it came as a surprise to me. “Tomorrow” became so ubiquitous around the time of the original Broadway production in 1977 that the inevitable cultural backlash turned into a symbol of overexposed and overly optimistic show tunes.
But the score by Charles Strouse and Martin Chernin is solid, and that trademark song functions perfectly in expressing the character of the young ginger-curled orphan, and returns later in the show in a reasonable satirical moment. Annie may not be innovative, but it plays the traditional structure and old-fashioned sentiment exceedingly well, and is nowhere near as saccharine as I had always assumed.
Little Orphan Annie originated in an 1885 poem by James Whitcomb Riley, but it was the comic strip, launched in 1924, that made her a cultural icon. Radio and film adaptations followed, and the now classic musical has been adapted no less than three times into movies. That’s a surprisingly durable run for a comic strip fantasy steeped in The Great Depression, but Annie has always had a satirical edge that followed her onto the stage.
Annie (Bailey Whitbeck) is plucked from her terrible existence in the orphanage managed by Miss Hannigan (Kristy Calman) by Grace Ferrell (Susan Crocker), secretary to wealthy industrialist Oliver Warbucks (Chris Haulter), to spend Christmas with him in his Manhattan mansion. Annie and “Daddy” Warbucks hit it off immediately and he begins plans to adopt her, but Annie still harbors the hope of finding the birth parents who abandoned her on the orphanage stoop eleven years earlier, a hope that Hannigan, her nefarious brother Rooster (Johnathan Jackson), and his dim-witted girlfriend Lily St. Regis (Olivia Thompson) seek to exploit.
Director Katie Maras Haulter fills her stage with the largest cast I’ve ever witnessed at CLT, most of them young people – a few barely more than toddlers. For the most part, she moves them around efficiently, although the finale pushes the limits of the proscenium. Madi Sellmer helps with some good choreography rendered in a sometimes-unsteady manner.
The singing generally comes off much better. Young Ms. Whitbeck is a pretty good Annie, and if her singing misses the “little girl with a big voice” cliché that we have come to expect in this role, she nonetheless sounded steady and in key. She looks the part, and more importantly, lands the cheeky humor and abundant confidence of the character with aplomb. Chris Haulter handled Warbucks’ mix of arrogance and compassion very well, and sang with feeling. The most excellent Susan Crocker brought her fine voice and professionalism to Grace Ferrell, with just the right degree of poignancy in her obviously unrequited feelings for her employer.
Kristy Calman leads the villains as an appropriately mercenary and cruel Miss Hannigan, putting enough brass in her singing to satisfy. Johnathan Jackson struts and crows with relish as Rooster, and Olivia Thompson captures the Brooklyn moxie of Lily St. Regis, even if she appears less comfortable in her movements. It’s true that the script requires her to be bumped around to comic effect in the musical numbers, but she still seemed less than at ease.
Among the ensemble, Mark Hubbard was an adroit utility man in several roles, most effectively as radio host Bert Healy. Mr. Hubbard’s voice is not strong, but he knew exactly how to sell his brief number, and the scene gently mocks the medium with a deft bit of business faking a tap dance. Another standout was Olivia Manning, who used her equally brief moments as A Star to Be in “NYC” to reveal a powerful singing voice that broke through the clutter with some impact.
Sandy Swansey-Prince underplayed her role as Annie’s dog Sandy enough to not entirely steal the show. W.C Fields was right about sharing the stage with canine thespians, and the winning Swansey-Prince pooch just might have upstaged all the humans if given the opportunity. He also warned against children, but this is Annie, so what are you going to do?
C. Kevin Swansey looks to be having a blast stealing scenes as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the moment where he demands his cabinet stand and sing “Tomorrow” to follow Annie’s hopeful example is a delicious comic moment that echoes the political commentary found in the comic strip. “Everybody sing – Republicans too Oliver!” That potential is not as fully realized in this production as it should be, but the intention remains clear.
Nothing is made of the implication in the Warbucks name – that the self-made billionaire made his fortune profiteering off of World War I. I suppose the idea was fashionable and accepted in the period.
Mr. Swansey also provides set design that clearly delineates the distinction between the low and high end of the society in that time, (and still does) and the costumes (no credit was given in the program) are mostly right on the money as well, although Warbucks’ suits never feel accurate to the period or appropriate to his status until he dons the tuxedo that defined his image in the comics.
Annie is most certainly old-fashioned, well-crafted entertainment for the whole family, and there is no reason to apologize for that, but it also has enough smarts to speak to universal human concerns without sacrificing its commercial appeal.
September 8, 9, 10, 15, 16 at 8:00PM
September 17 at 2:00PM
For tickets, please call the box office at 812.283.6522
Clarksville Little Theatre
301 E. Montgomery Avenue
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.