Tuesday, December 10, 2013

ANNIE again lights up Beck Center for the holidays

She’s Back! 

ANNIE, the redheaded comic strip heroine, is back at Beck Center.  The musical, which was showcased in the past at Beck, is making yet another appearance in Lakewood.

The show gives us cute orphans, a dog, a funny orphanage director, con-men, a billionaire, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Christmas.  And, yes, lots of memorable songs including Tomorrow, Hard Knock Life, Little Girls, I  Think I’m Going to Like it Here, N.Y.C., Fully Dressed, and I Don’t Need Anything Else But You. 

It must be realized by parents that this is not a show filled with prat falls and the awe factors that will hold the attention of little ones.  Most children have never seen an ANNIE comic strip, there is no ANNIE TV program.  They know little about orphans and orphanages or the depression.  The show is filled with references well beyond the level of the children, and many adults.  Al Capone, J. Edgar Hoover, Gandhi and Calvin Coolidge are all 1930s personages.  The new deal, Communism, and politics aren’t part of a kid’s world.  Many of the words to the songs aren’t kid friendly. No prince and princesses here, or fast action.  This was clear with the amount of crying and restlessness of the youngsters during the Sunday matinee I attended.

ANNIE, with book by Thomas Meehan and lyrics by Martin Charnin, is based on Harold Gray’s LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE comic strip.  The strip debuted in 1924, became a radio show in 1930, films in 1932 and 1938, and a Broadway musical in 1997.  It  was reprised this year and is running parallel to the Beck production.   The comic strip was cancelled in June of 2010.

The musical centers on eleven year-old Annie who was left at the Municipal Girls Orphanage in New York by her depression-poor parents.  The orphanage is run by the alcoholic Mrs. Hannigan.  Annie longs for the return of her parents.  She runs away, saves a dog (Sandy) from the animal warden, is caught by the police, is returned to the orphanage, is taken to the home of billionaire Oliver Warbucks for a Christmas visit, the two develop a loving relationship, she has a scare when her “real” parents show up, but, as happens in all good musicals about kids, a dog and billionaires, they all live happily ever after.

For the show to work requires an adorable Annie who can sing, dance and act, and a cast who can play comic strip characters.  The Beck production stumbles a little on the comic book level, but, fortunately, the production, under the guidance of Scott Spence, is blessed with performers who can pull it off.

Anna Barrett, who has played the role before at Beck, has a nice singing voice, dances and moves well, is adorable and totally natural as Annie.  Riley-Marie Haley is delightful as Molly, one of the orphans.  Elise Pakiela, Jade McGee, Maggie Devine, Erin Eisner, and Natalie Welch all are cute as mature orphans. 

Lenne Snively has a wonderful time playing Mrs. Hannigan, as does the audience watching her. Molly Huey is fine as the airheaded Lily St. Regis, Rooster’s sidekick.  Matthew Ryan Thompson has calmed down his previously much overly exaggerated performance as Rooster, creating a more acceptable persona.  Sometimes actors must realize that more is not always best and subtlety can work.

Gilgamesh Taggett is picture perfect as Daddy Warbucks.  Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly sings well and gives the right air to Grace, Warbucks’ assistant.  Leslie Feagan does a fine FDR imitation.

The highlight of the show is the dancing.  Choreographer Martin Céspedes integrates tap, probation era steps, stylized hand moves and air punches to accent Charles Strouse’s jazzy music.  He has upgraded the well-conceived Easy Street and Hard Knock Life, insuring that each would be a sure show-stopper.

Larry Goodpaster’s band, especially the horns, had some difficulties with the overture, but did well backing up the singers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: As corny and overdone as ANNIE is, with a good performance it can delight. With its tuneful music, strong cast and super choreography, Beck’s production makes for a nice theatrical experience, but maybe now it’s time for the theatre to move on and find a new holiday show.

ANNIE is scheduled to run through January 5, 2014 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go to http://www.beckcenter.org