IT’S A HARD KNOCK LIFE - ANNIE OPENS STAGE 1 THEATRE 29TH SEASON WITH THE LITTLE RED AND HER DOG SAN
‘ANNIE THE MUSICAL’ STILL INCLUDES THE ALL THE LOVE AND HEART
OF HAROLD GREY'S
This review of ANNIE THE MUSICAL - begins my whirlwind of three Hoovervilles I will visit in the next four weeks at Bay Area theatres - This version of the Red Haired orphan is at Stage 1 in Newark Ca through Oct 15th at the Newark Memorial stage. This is a charming cast of locals under the direction of Sue Ellen Nelsen. The Tony honored musical is based on the long running Harold Gray comic strip, "Little Orphan Annie," that premiered in the 1920s, and became one of the most widely read comics. The story is based on the short story "The Life and Hard Times of Little Orphan Annie." The book was written by Thomas Meehan, the music by Charles Strouse and the lyrics by Martin Charnin and the show played for nearly six years.
ANNIE went on to win 7 Tony Awards in 1977 and the cuddly dog who played Sandy became the longest running dog on Broadway, and never missed a performance. The show is now the 13th longest running American musical in Broadway history and has been revived on Broadway a few times. Director Nelsen dedicated this production to one of the original production team writers, she said “Thomas Meehan, who wrote the book for this musical, passed away during our rehearsal period. I would like to dedicate this production his memory.”
The plot along includes such classics as, "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here," "Annie," and "I Don't Need Anything But You." And icon show stoppers "Easy Street," "We'd Like to Thank You," and "A New Deal for Christmas." The orphans are cute, but their major song and dance number, "It's a Hard Knock Life," was too formulaic and lacked dynamism.
ANNIE is played by the young actor Elliana McKean who is as the 11-year-old icon orphan. Mckean nicely balances scrappiness, vulnerability, wide-eyed excitement and flat out cuteness. There's nothing little about her voice, which soars on the show's hopeful signature ballad, "Tomorrow," not perfect but for this bright pre teen her singing sometimes has an odd pinched quality. McKean has lots of heart and an impressive amount of spunk, and it's easy to forgive those issues as you get absorbed into the show; she has a solid career on stage ahead of her.
The best performance of the two and half hour show, hands down, goes to Robert Sholty’s imposing Daddy Warbucks who starts out gruff and all-business, but then he meets Annie and his heart melts along with everybody else at the Warbucks’ compound. He and McKean have terrific chemistry together.
The slinky Sarah Sloan is the enthusiastically cruel orphanage manager, Miss Hannigan. Sloan has a gift for physical comedy and a hilarious crazy face that she uses to great effect, especially when expressing her seething hatred of orphans on the song "Little Girls." It's fun watching Sloan scowl at her orphans, stumble around in her bathrobe and take sips from a bottle of booze and with a whistle around her neck.
Local favorite Kevin Hammond as Hannigan's conniving, crowing brother Rooster shines in “Easy Street” with Sloan. Six incredibly cute young girls as Annie's fellow posse and orphans include: Florence Pedersn, Jaezali Silva, Sofia Zuniga, Oviya Anbu, Samantha Leber, Rylynn McKean, Sophia Pinto and adorable Aisla Villareal as the youngest waif, Molly. The youngster cast seem to have a lot of fun and they create a real presence. One of them asks the dreaded Miss Hannigan what she is doing as she has another swig and she says, “I am taking my medicine.”
The story seems to give its first real test when Annie sings the ever hopeful song “Tomorrow” to Sandy. ANNIE takes a real turn from the dingy world of the orphanage to something very beautiful when Grace Farrell, played by the lovely Anne Milbourne, the secretary of the very rich Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, shows up at the orphanage to select a child to come to Warbucks’ mansion for a two-week Christmas visit. In a very clever scene, she chooses Annie to come with her. Shortly as the bald billionaire brings home the icon number “N.Y.C.” with his strong baritone voice.
The story remains a love/faith story and a heart stealer. Annie wears a beautiful two-layered coat for the first time and we see her in a real sharp outfit. Warbucks calls some very important people and makes some interesting turns in accepting the orphan Annie. He is natural easy, funny, and seems to be a man who could easily have a billion dollars. Sholty sings “You Won’t Be An Orphan for Long” with McKean and Milbourn; all three have vibrant voices as they end the first act.
The show's best moments include homeless people cursing Herbert Hoover's name in the sarcastic "We'd Like to Thank You"; and Warbucks waltzing with Annie in the tender "Something Was Missing." Also the humorous spectacle of president, FDR, played by the terrific Michael Campbell and his staff belting out "Tomorrow" with Jed da Roza’s stunning music direction and his full size 25 member stunning orchestra. Vocal director Jerry Lovejoy kept the girls in perfect pitch and his HooverVille chorus rousing as they filled the Newark Theatre with their strong voices. Stage manager Christine Plowright had a huge cast of 30 and one dog to work on and off stage and make sure all 30 hit their marks. Set Designer Belinda Maloney and carpenter Jim Perry and crew transformed the Newark stage from a homeless camp to a billionaire’s living room with ease, and added two side sets: Miss Hannigan's Depression era orphanage and Daddy Warbucks' plush office.
Andrea Schwartz’ lighting design also warmed the company from the girls bunk bed dormitory to the streets of New York with a neon lighted backdrop. Dallis Wright’s choreography was a bit disappointing, lacked creativity and energy, that might be a downside to Nelsen’s direction that seemed lacking at times. Props by the creative Alison Brooks include an always filled flask for Hannigan, mops and buckets for the girls and vintage phones for all the office scenes. The vintage costumes were designed by Liz Nelsen who made sure the girls were in the perfect rags and created some sparking dresses for Annie’s new life at the Warbucks’ manor. I must include a shout out to four legged Roger Roberts (Sandy’s) encourage and handlers Mandi McKean and Liz Villegas who made sure the boy was on cue and stole the audience hearts.
The play is winning, delightful and even after so many times I have seen the red head, it's surprising right up to the end. How can one not like a story about an orphan kid who finds herself being adopted by a billionaire, a stray dog who is saved from the pound, a Trump with a heart, dancing orphans, and a slimy villain who gets her due. Add the iconic line “Leapin' Lizards, even if it's a little tired, you'll like seeing "ANNIE”. I am off to see two more Hooverville’s next at Woodside Community Theatre and later this fall at the Berkeley Playhouse, where I hope to see a more diverse cast - maybe an Asian or Latin Annie and a black Warbucks. Next up for STAGE 1 is DURST CASE SCENARIO a one night event with the legend comic Will Durst Nov 18th. Later this season look for IN THE HEIGHTS Spring of 2018. In the meantime head to Newark Ca to see this ANNIE and the perfect family pre holiday musical.
STAGE 1 THEATRE PRESENTS
Book by Thomas Meehan, Lyrics by Martin Charin
Music by Charles Strouse
Based on “Little Orphan Annie”
Directed by Sue Ellen Nelsen
Music Director Je daRoza, Choreographer Dallis Wright
Must Close October 15 2017
Newark Memorial Theatre
39375 Cedar Blvd Newark Ca
Running Time 2 hours 15 min one intermission
Photo’s by Steve Tang and Debbie Otterstetter
THE CAST --