Annie Is a Surefire Hit Thanks to Superstar Cast and Solid Direction

 

The Community Players in Pawtucket have truly knocked it out of the park with their 97th season opener — a thoroughly delightful production of the much-loved musical Annie. With a snappy book by Thomas Meehan (based on the comic strip), there are more than a few timelessly popular songs by composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin. I doubt that there is a soul around that isn’t at least passingly familiar with the song “Tomorrow,” the unforgettable anthem of optimism that echoes throughout the show.

The original 1977 musical left a permanent mark on American culture, with its rags to riches tale of a young orphan attempting to find her parents and somehow finding a home for herself amid the halls of a billionaire’s estate in New York City. All the while, standing by the hope that that the president and heck, the entire government would deliver us all from economic devastation. At a time when economic woes have people at near mutiny from the current presidency, the show’s anthem of resilience amid despair literally jumps off the stage.

As musical director Ron Procopio’s impressive orchestra launches into the show’s overture, we are shown newspaper headlines and newsreel of The Great Depression, setting the social context of the time where factories and businesses were forced into closure, leaving workers penniless and living in shantytowns.

We soon meet a delightfully dejected set of hardscrabble young orphans, living in fear under the sour eye of the brash and boozy Miss Hannigan (played by the wildly funny Eve-Marie Webster). Right out of the gate the show gives us the backstory of Annie, the dreadful drudgery that they are living in and their hopes for a better future in the triptych of songs “Maybe,” “It’s A Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow.”

Director Brian Mulvey has assembled a fantastic group of six young actresses for the scruffy orphans (hats off to the talented Sophie Appel, Jillian Reeve, Samantha Boragine, Emma Sheldon, Samantha Bardon and Marley Shaw). The girls all work together incredibly well, delivering solid vocals and choreographer Leslie Racine Vazquez’s lively dance numbers with performing chops that belie their young years.

But the heart and soul of the show is Olivia Dufresne’s Annie. Her plucky character is both defiant toward Hannigan, maternal toward the girls and sweetly innocent with the adult cast. And that voice! She is a powerhouse singer, a surefire belter who would make even Ethel Merman jealous.

Annie runs away from the torture of Miss Harrigan’s rule and spends a night wandering the city, finding friends in a Hooverville shantytown, meeting adorable stray dog Sandy and vowing to one day find her lost parents. Dufresne’s delivery of “Tomorrow” was impeccable, sending shivers down my spine – and solidifying my belief that this little girl could do anything.

Miss Hannigan’s signature song, the passionate ode to loathing that is “Little Girls,” nearly brought down the house with Webster’s impeccable comic timing and impressive voice. I loved her take on the character, playing it for laughs, but with a vulnerability that made me believe that when she said she was one step away from losing it entirely, she meant it.

Webster is more than matched in her comic chops and vocal prowess by the talented duo of Kevin Killavey as her slick con man brother Rooster and Laura Benjamin as his daffy but determined blonde moll Lily St. Regis. The trio really packs a wallop together with their rafter-rattling number “Easy Street,” jam packed with solid harmonies, lively choreography and seemingly unstoppable energy.

Playing a lovely counterpoint to all this greasy greed is Lia DelSesto McAlpine, cutting an enchanting figure as Grace Farrell, secretary to Fifth Avenue billionaire Oliver Warbucks. Her mission to bring home a poor orphan for Christmas may start out as a simple PR stunt for all involved, but it is not soon after she meets Annie that she – and then the entire house staff and eventually Warbucks himself– are completely won over by her sheer enthusiasm and delightful demeanor.

For me, this production’s most delightful revelation was Michael Thurber’s performance as Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks. Thurber has the 30s phrases and dialogue down pat and mines the script for laughs as well. Bringing his undeniable stage presence, excellent sense of timing and silky-smooth baritone singing voice to the role, Thurber’s bald pate and stately frame makes for a wonderful visual as the gruff wartime capitalist faces off against the tiny Annie. Thurber and Dufresne have a wonderful onstage rapport as the wartime capitalist businessman who has no room in his heart for relationships soon falls in love with the orphan and offers to adopt her.

Kudos must go out to the adult ensemble for their portrayals of the citizens of New York, the White House and even Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself.

Annie ran thru Nov 19.

 

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