I had high expectations for Stage 62’s production of Annie. Sitting in the audience at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, I listened dreamily as the orchestra introduced the show with a lively preface to one of the best known children’s Broadway musical score. As the rich red curtains open to reveal the stage crowded with bunk beds and little girls quickly scrambling into place I am quickly swept into the story. Annie is heartwarming. A tale of a girls orphanage in New York City during the 1930’s overseen by an abusive and drunk Miss Hannigan. Annie, a precocious orphan with boundless hope that she will soon be reunited with her parents. The story unfolds when she is adopted by the wealthy Mr. Warbucks as an act of goodwill for the holidays. Warbucks quickly warms up to Annie, touched by the story of her abandonment, and agrees to help locate her biological parents.
The show boasts a sizable cast. Actors range in age from very young children, portraying underprivileged yet adorable orphans to others whose faces and voices are custom to Stage 62. Each are boundless with talent. Nora Hoyle, in the starring role, has a strong voice and maintains the spunk of her character, an innocent and neglected but optimistic orphan, throughout the show. The orphan ensemble is tireless and animated. Together this group of young performers, exude charisma. They especially dazzle during the energetic “It’s the Hard Knock Life” song and dance scene. Tom Strauman, as Oliver Warbucks has the looks to easily come across as the big named billionaire. I didn’t feel he clearly revealed the cold and callous side to Warbucks but his mannerisms easily align with a distinguished and wealthy man and his performance during, “Something Was Missing” is incredibly sweet and touching. It is really Stage 62’s ubiquitous Becki Toth as the heartless Miss Hannigan who steals the show. She is nothing short of a powerhouse performer. The pitches of her voice illuminate into the audience and her imitation of sloppy drunkenness delivers a show stopping performance. She immediately wins the audience’s applause during her rendition of “Little Girls” and portrays her role with pizzazz.
I am particularly pleased by Annie’s set design. Designed by Andy Folmer, the exhibition of many different places; a dreary orphanage, Miss Hannigans disheveled office, the slums of Hooverville, to name a few, are enchanting. One of my favorite scenes, the opening of Act 2, The NBC Radio Studio, hosted by Bert Healey, played by Jeff Way and staring the Boylan Sisters, Amy DeHaven, Kaitlin Schreiner and Katie Turpiano, depict the timeframe of the story with sweet sentiment. Folmers highly detailed sets and a smart selection of props offer opportunity for the cast to create an added level to their character. The comedic moments laced into the fabric of the plot and a glimpse into the lost art of radio media, is a highlight of the show.
The actors who hold supporting roles, Ashley Harmon as Grace Ferrell, Carmen LoPresti as Drake, Heather Friedman cast as Mrs. Pugh, Nina Napoleone portraying Cecille and Amy LaSota as Mrs. Greer alongside the ensemble wow the audience in “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here”. Another stunning performance, “Easy Street”, which features the unmistakable talent of Seth Laidlaw as Rooster and Candice Fisher cast as Lily St. Regis. Alongside, Toth, this trio complete a fantastic musical number. The reprise of “Tomorrow”, sung by Annie, Warbucks, President Roosevelt, played by Chris Martin, and cabinet members is another high point in the show. This scene highlights director Rob James’ focus on creative visuals that propel the audience to become emotionally invested in the characters.
I do have mixed feelings about the use of a puppet to portray Sandy the dog, a stray Annie finds while wandering the slums of NY. In many instances theater companies hire or train a live animal but Stage 62 chose to use a life sized Marionette whose movements are orchestrated by a puppeteer. Initially I thought this was clever. There is an instant bond between Annie and Sandy that is irresistible, yet as the scene progressed I began to feel there was something bizarre about the whole thing. Perhaps it was the way the puppeteer placed the dogs two front paws on Annie’s shoulders and continually maneuvered it to lick her face and neck. It quickly lost all allure for me and left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable. Fortunately, the role of Sandy was used primarily in just one scene and I was relieved to not have to witness too much interaction between Hoyle and the concocted canine .
Growing up in the 80’s with red hair and freckles Annie was my childhood hero. A neighborhood friend owned the movie soundtrack and we listened to it on her suitcase record player while dressing Barbie Dolls. I loved the record so much I received my own for Christmas, only the one I got was the original Broadway recording. At first listen I turned my nose up to it, the voices were not the same, the music was different, including songs I didn’t recognize from the film, but after a few plays I fell in love, especially to the overture. Soon I was tap dancing through the house to It’s the Hard Knock Life and You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile. Annie was probably the show responsible for my lifelong love affair with musicals. What this all means is I expected a powerful performance. Once again, Stage 62 presents a caliber of talent on and off stage, and the ability to make their art truly come alive for the audience. Annie is delightful and will certainly entertain an audience of all ages.
Annie runs at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall through November 19. For tickets and more information click here.
Photos by Friedman Wagner-Dobler.