Granite’s Annie Adopts Stellar Performers

There’s an old adage in show business that says you should never work with children or animals. That fact alone should strike fear into any theater company attempting to perform Annie, since it heavily features both. So, when a local company like Granite Theatre in Westerly decides to mount it for their holiday show, they get a huge nod of admiration from me, even if the results are somewhat mixed.

Recapping the plot of Annie would be pointless for several reasons:

  1. Many people know it backward and forward, having grown up on the movie and/or local performances, or else learned every note of the songs dreaming of being in it themselves one day.
  2. Most people who do not fit category #1 have at least a passing acquaintance with the story, making a recap unnecessary.
  3. Anyone who doesn’t fit into categories #1 or #2 probably doesn’t like musical theater all that much anyway, and a plot synopsis would not convince them to attend this show anyway.

Suffice it to say, despite some inexplicable story moments I had forgotten (more on that later), the story of Annie is a certain crowd-pleaser that will have kids and adults alike smiling at the end.

But going back to that adage I mentioned at the top, reviewing a production of Annie almost always boils down to one key question: How are the kids and the dog? After all, these are the aspects of the show that everyone wants to see, and the only aspects that anyone will remember in the months and years to follow.

I’m happy to report that the girls of Miss Hannigan’s orphanage all have strong voices and impressive stage presence, which they use to deliver some of Annie’s best and most famous songs (“Hard Knock Life” and “Fully Dressed”). And of course, special mention should go to Annie herself (played in the performance I saw by Bobbie Celine Doherty), who handled the massive demands of her part like a real pro.

The dog, however, was another story. Obviously chafed at having to share the stage with mortals far less cute than himself, the actor playing Sandy (billed as Levi Saltzman; obviously a stage name) behaved as nothing less than a diva, refusing to adhere to his blocking, and at one point forcing poor Annie to sing “Tomorrow” with her back to the audience as she tried to keep him on stage. I would urge Mr. Saltzman to check his ego at the door and embrace professionalism, should he be given any future theatrical endeavors.

Upon entering the theater, I had vague memories of seeing this play when I was a child, as well as re-living the movie with my children more recently, but there were several things about this show I had completely forgotten. For example, for all the hype and challenges of this show, the girls (and Sandy) actually aren’t on stage nearly as much as I’d remembered. This production had 16 adults (many of whom played multiple roles) filling out the cast and taking us through the less memorable scenes, with special mention going to Michael Thurber as a Daddy Warbucks who you can see melting under Annie’s gaze, Ali Mitchell as the exact Grace Farrell you want her to be, and Jane Mandes as a completely frayed (if perhaps a touch too rough – for my son at least) Miss Hannigan.

Technically, the Granite Theatre crew did a good job using the resources at their disposal to piece together the numerous, and often complicated, backstage elements of the show. Director David Jepson kept his performers moving and motivated throughout their scenes, the sets (once they finally appeared) did a great job using the space, and despite having only two keyboards and a percussionist, the band (directed and fronted by Stephen DeCesare) was able to produce a very full, if at times a bit too quiet, score that felt as if it came from a larger group.

For me at least, Annie’s biggest fault is in its runtime. Frankly speaking, a show starring and intended for kids should not go past two hours, with 90 minutes being ideal. During Sunday’s matinee, Granite Theater’s production clocked in at 2:41. This is due to two factors, one of which is completely out of their control:

  1. Lackluster scenes – I alluded to this earlier, but man, I was NOT prepared for how many scenes there are in Annie that probably didn’t need to be in the show. There is an entire song and dance dedicated to badmouthing Herbert Hoover, an entire scene talking about New York City that has no place in the larger storyline, and an enormous subplot (complete with a recurring non-joke) about FDR coming up with his New Deal, all of which dragged the show to a screeching halt and (mostly) kept the girls and Sandy off-stage.
  2. Scene changes – Because of all these scenes and set pieces, there were many MANY moments during the production when the scene cut to black, and we had to wait for several minutes in the dark as the crew set up the next location. While I certainly understand the challenge posed here, the fact is that these interruptions made an already overlong show much longer, and I think the production could have strongly benefited from some faster (and less wholesale) changes.

In all, if you are looking for a fast-paced show that little kids will love, this production might be a challenge. However, if you want to see some talented girls (and a diva dog) perform the songs you (and maybe even your kids) will love, this might be the show for you.

Annie runs through Dec. 23 at Granite Theatre, One Granite Street, Westerly. granitetheatre.com. 401-596-2341

 

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