At the height of the Great Depression, Little Orphan Annie is giving hope to the populace one song and optimistic outlook at a time as she searches for her own parents. When she meets crusty billionaire Oliver Warbucks, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. . .for both of them. This is Annie: The Musical by Thomas Meehan with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin. It is currently playing at the Rochester Civic Theatre.
The script and score of this show almost feel like a draft as opposed to a final product. The script is definitely cute and has several amusing, breaking the fourth wall moments. Likewise, most of the songs are catchy and memorable, if reprised a bit much. With that being said, the script also lacks a little in character development and fails to further several ideas it introduces. For example, it’s clear that Annie has a transformative effect on the lives of the people she meets, but we only get to see the aftermath of her charm on people and never the transformative process itself.
Fortunately, the cast and crew are able to perform a bit of Annie magic on the script’s shortcomings.
Under the steady direction of Lee Gundersheimer, this show assuredly becomes more than the sum of its parts. Gundersheimer guided his troupe to solid, effective performances. He also has a sure sense of staging with good utilization of the theatre space. One of the strongest staging moments was the orphans entering Warbucks’ house for Christmas. Every possible entrance point was used including the auditorium and orchestra pit.
I salute the chorus of this production as they helped to animate the group scenes with the little bits of business crucial to creating this world. Some standout performances came from Alyssa Keller who shines in a solo (and demonstrates unbelievable breath control) in “N.Y.C.”; Chad Campbell and Gabrielle Hensrud as the slimy, swindling couple, Rooster and Lilly St Regis; Rocco Ruggeri is spot on as the puppeteer for Sandy the dog; and I was especially impressed with Jessica Carey’s performance as Molly. Though she be tiny, she is fierce as she has an exceptional sense of comedic timing and a larger than life presence.
Shea Morrey makes for an utterly natural Annie. She’s adventurous. She’s friendly. She’s gutsy. She’s feisty. She’s determined. She’s sweet. I couldn’t help but smile at her nearly limitless optimism and she has a deadly accurate singing voice which soared in “Tomorrow” and “I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here”. She just needs to be certain to keep up the breath support in some of her higher registers.
Mark Morrey is pretty darn good as Oliver Warbucks. I liked his firm, but fair take on the character. Arguably, Warbucks is the most developed character in the show as he begins as being focused solely on his business, but peels off the layers to show a terribly lonely man who has a lot more in common with Annie than one would think. Morrey is permitted to give Warbucks some surprisingly deep moments with “Something Was Missing”. I also liked how he adapted his singing to the character voice he used for Warbucks, managing to be on key, yet sound as if he were off key at the same time.
Emily Watkins very nearly steals the show as Miss Hannigan. Ms Watkins clearly had a ball with the role as the drunken, cruel head of the orphanage who forces her wards to clean the orphanage every single day, works them in a sweatshop, and shamelessly throws herself at any man with a pulse who walks through the door. Ms Watkins skillfully takes this role right to the very brim to the cup, but never goes over the top.
Ellen Huston has supplied a pretty nifty piece of choreography, especially in two show stopping numbers with the children, “It’s a Hard Knock Life” and “Fully Dressed”. Sarah Wood Lieske and her orchestra provided a spritely night of music. Kevin Dobbe and Doug Sween make for a good tandem with the set. Dobbe’s projections of NYC, alleys, and bridges melded well with Sween’s bunk beds, lavish Warbucks mansion, and conference table of FDR’s Cabinet room. Marco Magno’s costumes were of excellent quality with the rags of the homeless, the cheap clothes of the orphans, and the elegance of the Warbucks household. Paul Sund’s lights were exceptional and well suited to each scene and emotional beat of the play.
The show definitely needed much tighter cue pickups last night, but the warm and winning cast has provided a real crowd pleaser for the holiday season.
Annie: The Musical plays at the Rochester Civic Theatre through December 16. The show is sold out for the remainder of the run. Rochester Civic Theatre is located at 3773, 20 Civic Center Dr in Rochester, MN.