When I was given this assignment, I was greatly confused at being told that the theatre I was going to was in Greenfield. I lived on the Squirrel Hill/Greenfield edge for eleven years and have been doing theatre in Pittsburgh for fifteen, and I’ve never heard of a playhouse in Greenfield. That’s because this is a new venture, and a new company and the show I went to see is only their second theatrical production. While the Palisade Playhouse offers many services in their space including music classes, a choir, summer camp, and fitness sessions, as well as community church services, their main goal is to produce family friendly shows that can involve lots of artists in the Pittsburgh area. The theatre space is, in fact, a church that they’ve purchased and are fixing up to better suit their theatrical ambitions. Co-owner and children’s director Michelle Bellison says that plans are to eventually convert the second floor to a living space so their family can both live and work in the building. Their first musical was Clue in April, and now they’ve taken on a full cast of children and adults to do Annie.
Co-owner and director of this production, Matt Belliston had quite a challenge fitting an entire cast of kids onto the small church stage, but the actors never seemed to be stifled or lacking in space. Besides the stage area, actors used the aisle and fronts of the audience from time to time, making it feel more inclusive to the viewers sitting in the church pews watching. Given the space they had, it all seemed to fall into place nicely.
This production has two different casts for most parts, identified as the “red” cast and the “white” cast in the program. Presumably this is to give the actors (a lot of them children) breaks between shows. I saw a red cast night, and I got to see Miss Rachael Renee Parsons completely shine as the title character. Not only was her voice impressive and perfect for the role, Parsons clearly has the experience needed for her to go far in the world of drama. She had a great sense of comedic timing and tone, something I often find underdeveloped in child actors. In the red cast, Rachael Parsons is joined on stage by two of her sisters (Nicole and Danielle) who played Tessie and Molly, and her mother Tracey, who worked closely alongside her daughter onstage as Grace Farrell, Oliver Warbucks’ assistant. It’s clear where these girls get their talent from, as Tracey Parsons is an obvious veteran of the stage.
Another noteworthy performance was Jillene Stewart as the exasperated and often intoxicated orphanage manager, Miss Hannigan. Her portrayal of this woman, who could easily be frightening, is just enough of a villain to get the point across with humor while still being suitable for children. She ended up being mostly comic, which I think is generally the point of the character.
The orphans all worked together extremely well, coordinating their group dances and singing with ease. It was nice to see a group of girls of varying ages being so enthused about acting. I never caught one standing around looking out of place. They all were acting the full time they were on stage. Kudos also goes to the costumer of the show (unnamed in program) for the excellent work on the orphans’ clothes. The whole cast very much looked the part and felt like the right period, and for a fresh theatre company that’s pretty impressive. Choreographer Toni Dobransky obviously worked hard on getting everything to be on time and in place, because the dances all throughout the show were well organized and entertaining.
I was pleased in general with all the acting and singing, but one part of the show that really suffered was the technical end. This being the company’s second show, it’s easy to see that they simply need a bit more work at organizing the off-stage portion of things. Each scene had a full set change, which seemed very unnecessary, and that made each change go on far longer than it should have. On top of the length of each change, actors were moving things around stage very haphazardly, bumping into each other and banging set pieces on the ground. The company should consider a more rehearsed run crew in the future.
The music was played from a pre-recorded soundtrack, but the lights were designed by Aidan Setlock. Aside from a few odd color choices, the lights worked pretty well considering the space they had to play with. Although whoever was running the spotlight clearly needed a bit more practice.
All in all, this show was a well-done musical that hosts a great amount of talent. Palisade Playhouse is just getting started, and there’s always a few bumps in the road at first. From seeing this production, I can tell that they’re going to be a company to really watch for in the coming years. Best of luck to them!
Annie runs at the Palaside Playhouse through September 2. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photos courtesy of Salene Mazur Kraemer