Reviewed by George Basler
Annie is a sugar-coated fairy tale of a musical that radiates optimism and good cheer that only the most hard-hearted Grinch could resist.
Such is also the case with a buoyant production that opened this Friday (Nov. 9) at the Endicott Performing Arts Center for a two-weekend run. (I attended the sold-out Sunday, Nov. 11, matinee.)
Filled with catchy songs, well-choreographed dance numbers and strong performances by all concerned, the production is one you surrender to, almost despite yourself.
The musical originally opened on Broadway in 1977 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the energy crisis and an economic recession. Possibly because theatergoers were looking for a little optimism, it was a major hit, winning seven Tony Awards and settling in for a long run.
Time, however, has not been overly kind to the show. Annie’s open-hearted optimism can seem out of step with today’s more cynical and jaded atmosphere. And the show’s best-remembered song, “Tomorrow,” has been played ad nauseam. (An atrocious film reboot of a couple of years ago didn’t help matters,)
Taken on its own terms, though, Annie is a skillful Broadway concoction that honorably earns its feel-good sentiment. The book by Thomas Meehan is a lively one, and the songs by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin are punchy and vibrant.
One of the best things about the EPAC production, skillfully directed by Matt Gaska, is the respect that it shows the material. There is no winking at the audience. Instead, the production affectionately conjures up the 1930s time period in which Annie takes place.
Everything moves at a brisk pace throughout the two-and-half hours. Gaska’s direction of the large cast (I counted 48 performers in the program) is a masterful piece of work. The choreography by Kate Fabrizio is equally good, especially with the troupe of talented youngsters in the cast.
Most importantly, the production is never overly cute or sickening sweet. After all, like any good fairy tale, Annie has dark elements. Instead of a wicked witch, Annie’s nemesis is Miss Hannigan, the evil proprietress of an orphanage that Annie longs to escape from. Instead of the dark woods, Annie must navigate the Great Depression in which poverty and despair are just outside the door.
Lea Ackley, a sixth grader at Spencer Van-Etten Middle School, plays the title character with great skill. She has a thoroughly engaging stage presence and a good singing voice for someone her age. Her performance makes Annie a pint-size survivor, not a waif. That’s especially true in her rendition of “Tomorrow” as she makes the song an anthem of resiliency, not naïve optimism.
Jessica Pullis is extremely funny as the dipsomaniac villain, Miss Hannigan. Her performance is a broad one that flirts with going too far over the top at times. Overall, though, Pullis makes the character one you love to hate. And, boy, can she belt out a tune.
Yancey Moore Jr. is solid and believable as Daddy Warbucks whose flinty heart is melted by Annie. In supporting roles, Jamie Cook and Jana Kucera sparkle as Rooster, Hannigan’s equally villainous brother, and his blowsy lady love, Lily.
Special mention goes to Michelle K. Thompson who plays Grace, Warbucks’ loyal secretary who is carrying a torch for the blustering billionaire. The role can be a thankless one, but Thompson’s fine singing voice and acting skills keep the character from fading into the scenery.
In fact, the entire supporting cast deserves credit for a lively production that never misses a beat.
Last, but certainly not least, is the troupe of youngsters who play Annie’s fellow orphans. Their scene-stealing ability is through the roof, and they command the spotlight during every number they perform. (Musical direction was by Paula Bacorn.)
Overall, Annie is a bracing tonic as the days grow shorter and the temperatures colder. The show makes you believe “the sun will come out tomorrow,” even in cloudy Broome County.
IF YOU GO: Final performances of Annie will be at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 16-18) at the Endicott Performing Arts Center, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott. Tickets are $20 ($18 for 65 and over and 12 and under). Purchase online at endicottarts.com or call 607-785-8903.