The indomitable spirit of an orphaned child can be found in The Bay City Players production of the Broadway classic, Annie, which opened on Thursday, April 26.
Annie, the title role of which was aptly played by Anastasia Breen, is a musical comedy about a plucky and optimistic 11-year-old looking for her parents in New York City during a time (1933) in which there was nothing much to smile about as the clouds of the Great Depression, the stock market crash, and Adolph Hitler cast gloom over the world!
As the orchestra, skillfully directed by James Pawloski, finishes the iconic overture, the production opens at the Municipal Orphanage run by the witch-like, Southern Comfort-swilling Miss Agatha Hannigan, competently played by Kristie Moe. She really gets into character with a clever bit with a Raggedy Anne doll in “Little Girls.”
Breen shows off her very capable voice for the first time in the lullaby, “Maybe.” She imagines the parents she has never known as she sings to fellow orphan Molly, played by the irrepressible Alexis Brunner, who has splendid stage presence. Armed with one-half of a silver locket and a note from her parents promising to come back, Annie is determined to run away to find the parents who left her at the orphanage when she was two months old. With the help of billionaire Oliver Warbucks, played to perfection by Larry Jacobs, Annie hopes to accomplish her mission.
Annie made its Broadway debut at the Alvin Theatre on April 21, 1977. It originally ran for 2,377 performances, winning seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It is based on Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie comic strip which first appeared in The New York Daily News on August 5, 1924. The creative team of Thomas Meehan (Book), Charles Strouse (Music), Peter Gennaro (Choreography), and Martin Charnin (Lyrics/Director) brought Annie to the stage.
Director Michael Wisniewski, ably assisted by Claire Hadley, keeps the pace brisk and the tone optimistic as he adroitly manipulates and blends a cast of 38, including three-year-old goldendoodle, Merry, who plays Annie’s dog, Sandy, with a 13-piece orchestra to provide two and one-half hours, including a 15 minute intermission, of old-style Broadway.
Wisniewski augments the set concept of scenic designers Mary Swift and Luke DeCarlo by his use of front screen projections of original drawings done for this production of Annie. Each projection acts as a backdrop for each of these scenes: the Municipal Orphanage, the streets of NYC, the Warbucks Mansion, and the shanty town of Hooverville. Wisniewski’s concept of going for a look that was not too “cartoonish” is wonderfully represented by drawings that go just far enough to remind us of the comic strip source material without crossing over to the realm of self-parody.
Breen’s stage presence as Annie is marvelous; she’s always in character. She also acts with her face. Her natural smooth line delivery makes her a delight to watch; she has the range to pull off all of her songs, including the iconic “Tomorrow.” She works superbly with the charming Sandy as well! Her chemistry with “Daddy” Warbucks is evident in numbers like “NYC” and “I Don’t Need Anything But You.” Her signature exclamation, “Oh, boy!” is consistently full of optimism! She finally hits her stride in “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here.” Breen could be stronger and bigger at the end of “Tomorrow.” She reaches too high and gets quiet, lessening its impact.
Larry Jacobs is Oliver Warbucks! He comes on with a big booming voice, and, in contrast, displays a sweet tenderness in various scenes with Annie, as he gradually warms up to her. His “Fred Astaire” type singing voice really shines! He even makes the lyric, “the Depression’s depressing” sound good!
There’s a lot to “crow” about with Jake Monroe as he excels as Rooster, the brother and evil cohort of Miss Hannigan. He lights it up, along with the delightfully air-headed Lily St. Regis, played so spot on by Natalie Slawnyk.
Justine Miller is elegant as Grace Farrell, the secretary of Warbucks. Her singing is extraordinary in “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here!”
Other Orphans: Kate (Kate Sulfridge) had a great mouse bit; Duffy’s (Wisdom Dudley) solo made me smile; Tessie’s (Lily Leaman) whine worked; Pepper (Alexandria Bressette) looked tough enough; July (Tansley Rogers) tormented Hannigan deliciously!
Other standouts include Bill Wright as FDR, sounding like Yogurt in Spaceballs, and leading an outstanding “Tomorrow” reprise; Marci Rogers is simply superlative in various ensemble roles, especially in “Hooverville”; Tim Simons as Drake has an engaging blend of stuffiness and outrageous outbursts; and Spencer Skorupski as Bert Healy has a classic clear deadpan delivery to open Act II. Choreographer Holly Haga Bills has numerous stand out numbers, especially the large ensemble pieces such as “Hooverville” and “NYC.”
Tyler Leonard comes through remarkably with the daunting task of making a large cast and orchestra sound good. The orphans can be hard to hear at times in the first act, however.
Transitions from one scene to the next are done through lighting, designed by David Newsham. The use of silhouette is especially effective as Annie is contemplating leaving the mansion in a pivotal scene in Act II.
Stage manager Greg Burke and assistant stage manager Janet Comtois also keep it moving backstage as they seamlessly direct scene changes done by the cast members themselves.
Costumer Doris Perry shows us the contrast between the rich and the poor. Annie’s hair, done by Randi Dalton, is a “master-piece!” Warbucks’ pinstripe and Annie’s changes jump at you! The Orphans could have had a more uniform look during “New Deal.”
At the end of the evening you should feel like optimistically “Leapin’ Lizards,” as the sun does come out!
Annie runs through May 6. Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for students. Run time is approximately 2:29 with a 15-minute intermission. According to the information provided by the box office on opening night, all performances of Annie are sold out. However, the box office urges you to call an hour before show time of each performance to check on availability of any tickets that may have been turned in. Go to www.baycityplayers.org for more information.