Annie, that lovable Depression-era orphan, has found a foster home at the WBT.

Published: Wednesday, July 26, 2017 By: Ed Lieberman Source:

Annie, that lovable Depression-era orphan, has found a foster home at the Westchester Broadway Theatre through September 10th.  Mary Jane Houdina, who was dance captain and assistant to the legendary choreographer Peter Gennaro in the original Broadway production, directs and choreographs this 201st  production at WBT.

Loosely based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” which ran from 1924 to 2010, the show (book by Thomas Meehan; music by Charles Strouse; lyrics by Martin Charnin) follows the adventures of Annie, a New York City orphan who is the protector of her fellow orphans (from the evil Ms. Hannigan) at the Girls Annex of the N.Y.C. Orphanage. She dreams of finding her parents, who dropped her at the orphanage when she was a toddler. She runs away, finds herself in a Hooverville (an enclave of the homeless during the Depression, named after President Herbert Hoover), is returned to the orphanage and finally is taken in by Oliver Warbucks, a wealthy industrialist who mingles with the political elite, including President Roosevelt. Although she was only supposed to stay with Warbucks for a week, for PR purposes, she immediately captivates Warbucks, who goes on radio to offer a reward if Annie’s parents return. Miss Hannigan and her never do well brother, Rooster, hatch a plan to fool Annie and Warbucks into believing that Rooster and his girlfriend, Lily, are Annie’s parents, using the information only they have (a broken locket left with Annie by her parents when they dropped her at the orphanage). In the end, Warbucks gets President Roosevelt to have the FBI investigate, the plot is uncovered, Warbucks adopts Annie . . .  and everyone lives happily ever after.

The original Broadway production ran for six years and won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, which is no surprise, given the surfeit of memorable – and hummable – tunes, including “It’s a Hard-Knock Life,” ‘You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” and the showstoppers “Maybe” and “Tomorrow.”

As one can see from the above precise, the casting of Annie is very important. In Peyton Ella WBT has found a girl whose voice compares well with all the other Annie’s one has no doubt seen, between two Broadway revivals, three film versions and countless regional and school performances (the press night performance was attended by Margaret Hosier, the actress who played Annie in WBT’s first production of the show, in 1983). Unfortunately, although Ms. Ella can belt the songs out with the best of them, she falls prey to the malady common to child actors: a lack of the subtle notes required by the non-singing aspects of their role; Ms. Ella’s acting provides no visible reason why a man such as Warbucks would be so enticed by her that he would completely change his personality and outlook on life. That said, such matters would not necessarily be apparent to the children who will – and should – come to see the show.  

The diverse cast, adults, and children, are uniformly good. Michael DeVries has the necessary presence and gravitas – and height – required by the role of the industrialist Oliver Warbucks, who has to play off not only orphan Annie but also commune with no less an authority figure as President Roosevelt (John-Charles Kelly). He displayed admirable range in his tender ballad ”Something Was Missing.”

Susann Fletcher plays – and hams – the evil Miss Hannigan to the limit (why is it that those poor people who undertake the unfortunate but necessary work of overseeing orphans and children always seem to come off so badly on Broadway [see Mr. Bumble in Oliver; Miss Trunchbull in Matilda, to name just a few]?). Celeste Hudson plays Grace, Warbuck’s assistant, who chooses Annie to bring home to Warbucks. But the person who steals the show is Adam Roberts, who plays Rooster, Miss Hannigan’s brother. He, Aubrey Linn, as Rooster’s girlfriend and co-conspirator Lily, and Ms. Fletcher stop the show in their number “Easy Street,” thanks in no small part to the choreography of Ms. Houdina.

WBT has also put together a multi-talented ensemble. Robert Abdoo, Kelly Black,  Joseph Cullinane, Carl Hulden, Ryan Alexander Jacobs, Kelsey Self, Rochelle Smith, Roger Preston Smith, Billy Clark Taylor and Jesse Lynn Harte, play such diverse roles as hoboes of Hooverville, residents and policemen of New York City, Warbuck’s staff, President Roosevelt’s cabinet, and even a Supreme Court Justice. Ms. Harte deserves special mention with a star turn as A Star to Be in the musical number, “N.Y.C.”, as does Mr. Hulden, as the radio emcee, Bert Healy.

The Orphans:  Ruby Griffin (July),  Anika Bobra (Tessie),  Peyton Ella (Annie), Gabriella Uhl (Kate),  Nora Kennedy (Pepper), Maureen Henshaw (Duffy).  In Basket: Haylie Shea Christiano (Molly). Tahlia Ellie, Nora Kennedy, Maureen Henshaw, Lauren Sun, Ruby Griffen, Lucy Neureuther, Anka Bobra, Sasha Murray, Ella Stanley, Gabriella Uhl, Molly Lyons and Haylie Shea Christiano, play alternating performances as the other orphans. Ms. Christiano played the youngest orphan, Mollie, at press night and was cute as a button. They weren’t perfect, but are not meant to be, and perfectly conveyed the helplessness, hope, and spunk befitting their unfortunate station in life.

The sets, by WBT’s talented team of Michael Bottari and Ronald Case, together with lighting by Andrew Gmoser convey the diverse locales of the action: the colorless orphanage; the depressing (and Depression-era) Hooverville; and the colorful and elegant Warbucks mansion. The same can be said of Suzy Benzinger’s costumes, which run from the drab clothing of the orphans to the evening clothes worn by Warbucks, his staff and President Roosevelt. Sound design by Mark Zuckerman mostly balanced the music, under the direction of William Stanley, with the relative strengths of the child and adult actors. That said, the dialogue and lyrics sung by the orphans were often unintelligible, but it was hard to determine whether that was the fault of the sound system or the diction of the orphans themselves.

Of course, no review of Annie would be complete without mention of Sandy, Annie’s dog. In this production, Sandy is played by Sunny, a 7 yr. old Terrier Mix. She has more experience in the role than many of the human actors, having been adopted to play the role in the 2012 revival of Annie on Broadway and has appeared in the national tour ever since. She has even been the subject of her own documentary, Annie’s Search for Sandy, on NBC! Especially poignant is the fact that Sunny was rescued from Houston Animal Control the day before she was to be put down.       

So, bring the family to WBT. Annie is the perfect summer entertainment for adults and (as they used to say at the circus) children of all ages!