Leapin’ Lizards! Annie Is Wonderful

Note: The Annie pictured is not Heidi Gray, who is currently playing the part. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Annie. This is a show I know well … maybe a little too well. As a child it was one of my first introductions to not only musical theatre, but to the amazing talents of Bernadette Peters, Carol Burnett, and Tim Curry. I would attempt to reenact “Easy Street” and “Little Girls.” When Trinity staged the show I was fortunate to catch Amanda Dehnert’s rendition of it while it was still in previews. I even directed it as part of an after school program, and yes, maybe my senior year book has a picture of me dressed up as Annie. This show is a part of my childhood. That said, what possibly can be done to Annie to make it relevant, or enjoyable at this point? What can a national tour really bring audiences? Turns out, quite a lot.

Let’s begin with Beowolf Boritt’s beautiful set. Honestly, if you’ve seen Annie before, this set is beautiful enough to coerce you to see it again. Depression-era New York comes alive, from the gritty Hoovervilles, the dilapidated orphanage, to the “other side” the opulence of Warbucks’ mansion. (Which literally is the other side of the set, an obvious necessity, but it also gives that literal translation of “the other side”). I just fell in love with Boritt’s work, and it’s wonderful that it can be showcased so beautifully on tour.

P.T. Barnum said to never work with animals or children. Obviously this show has both. These young performers were simply fantastic. And many of the cast members were making their premiere with the Providence production. Sage Bentley plays Tessie, a role that is sometimes just grouped in as another orphan role. With young Bentley playing the role, it doesn’t get overlooked! She has charisma and comedic timing, even in a smaller role. If she’s making such an impression now at age 11, just imagine what she’ll be doing in 10 years! Annabelle Wachtel’s portrayal of Molly is simply put adorable. This is one of those roles where a young actress can be dangerously annoying with the sappiness of the role. Wachtel takes this role and runs with it! She is very funny, especially when questioning Ms. Hannigan about her “medicine.” Molly Rose Meredith‘s portrayal of Pepper is just terrific. And then of course there is Annie. An enormous role for an 11-year-old. Heidi Grey’s tour debut as Annie is fantastic. She has a sweet voice, she is charming when she needs to be, and quite honestly you didn’t know it was her debut watching the show; it is as if she had been playing this role for quite some time. The young ladies in this show, including Casey Watkins, Bridget Carly Marsh and Emily Moreland, all have long careers ahead of them. They were all a real joy to watch. Well done!

Gilgamesh Tagget is a phenomenal Daddy Warbucks. So much of this show depends on Warbucks and Annie working off one another. Although you know the show, you know the lines, watching Tagget, your heart goes on the emotional roller coaster he experiences onstage. His excitement when he is going to tell Annie he is adopting her, his broken heart when he thinks he is losing her, and his elation when everything all works out.

Lynn Andrews as Miss Hannigan is a real delight. It’s one of those fabulously fun iconic roles, but Andrews manages to make it her own, and is a real crowd pleaser. Garrett Deagon’s Rooster is spot on.  Slimy, sneaky, and utterly fantastic!

This tour features some strong performers in smaller roles, and I can’t write out this review without mentioning them. Brendan Malafronte’s bit as Bert is everything you want it to be. A perfect way to open Act two. And while we’re at it, Jonathan Cobrda as Sound Effects Man doesn’t go unnoticed. Cobrda turns the role almost into the perfect late night side kick we know from today’s talk shows. Kudos! Ruby Day’s voice as the Star to Be in “NYC” soars. I have a feeling we will hear her voice once again, in a much larger role. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the two rescue dogs that comprise the role of Sandy, they were definitely a highlight of the night for my son!

It’s no secret that I love going to see live theater. I love the lights, the stories, the feeling of unity in an audience, but what I love about almost anything is children attending live theater, especially for the first time. Of course, with a lifelong theater geek as his mother, my son has been to his fair share of shows, but bringing him to his first PPAC show with my niece…well that’s something just extra special. They couldn’t contain themselves on the way to the theater. Watching all the kids dressed to the 9s, including my own son in his snazzy Star Wars suspenders and bowtie, it brought back what the theater always was for me growing up. When I would go to the theater as a kid, it wasn’t just any old day, it was an event. And what an event Annie is. As I sat my son and niece down I could hear little girls behind me singing the musical’s anthem song. The pre-show excitement when you attend a “kid’s show” is like no other, and PPAC’s Annie is no different. The patrons around you are chatty, in a good way, it’s easy to strike up a conversation with the people around you. You are truly part of a theater community for the night, the excitement is evident and shared; parents excited for their kids, and kids in awe of the magic of theater. This — this is what theater is about. It’s scenes like this that make me hope that the American theater isn’t dead, and that we’re cultivating an entire generation of new theater goers to love and appreciate theater. I know a lot of my theater friends, and a few of you reading this right now, may wrinkle your nose at this show, but if it opens the stage door to a child I say, “Leaping lizards!”

Annie runs until January 3. There is a special for families on December 31.  Call the box office at 401-421-2787, or order tickets online at ppacri.org.

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