Thirty years ago, when I lived in Seattle, I worked in the ticket office of the 5th Avenue Theater, which brought in the traveling Broadway shows. Employees could usually get comp. tickets for shows to help fill out the audience. Annie the Musical came along while I was there, but it sold out, and I did not get see the show. When the McCoy Grand Theater in Moorefield announced that they were auditioning for Annie the Musical, I thought that the planned performance dates were when we would be traveling in South Africa. Oh, well. Can’t see every production.
Then a couple of weeks after our return, I read that the performances would be in early December. When we arrived at the performance Saturday evening, we found out that the show was sold out. However, we could wait in the line of people hoping for returned tickets. As the curtain time approached, we were two people away. The house manager had counted empty seat and said that we might get it. We noticed a couple with a small child in arms behind us. We offed to let them go in before us. There were a couple of seats left in the front, left side. We would not miss out this time.
Annie the Musical is an adaptation of the cartoon strip about an orphan girl who connects with a wealthy tycoon in the 1930’s. There are lot of zany characters running the orphanage, helping Annie, trying to swindle Daddy Warbucks, etc. Frankly, even though I had never seen Annie the Musical, what I knew about the script did not entice me much to seek it out. The early 1970’s was a dismal time for American musicals. The good story lines and tunes had been used in The Music Man, Guy and Dolls, Singing in the Rain, My Fair Lady, etc. The ’70’s gave us Jesus Christ, Super Star and Cats. I suggest reading the gospels and T. S. Eliot’s small books of poems in your favorite easy-chair, rather than spending an evening curled up in a theatre seat.
Annie the Musical appears to be designed by committee: “What would sell?”… “Nostalgia”, “A familiar story”, “An orphan girl”, “Lot’s of orphan girls”, “Catchy tunes”, “Rags to riches”, “Wealth bachelor softened by love”, “Grifters and scams”, “Beautiful secretary catching eye of boss”, “Drunk lush”, “Christmas tree”, “Little dog”…Well, enough commentary on the script. Regardless of what I might think about the core product, Annie the Musical has been selling out Broadway shows and just about every middle and high school production performed in past 30 years. And, I’m in the front row.
Cally Curtis’s set construction crew provided the cast with gritty to grand spaces for singing, dancing, crooning, guffawing, and a variety of other schtick. The opening scene in the girl’s dorm in the orphanage fills the stage with three sets of bunk beds. Each has at least two girls bedded down, resulting in a hilarious conglomeration of little heads and and boots sticking out at all angles. Buckets, rags, mops are ready for their snarling “Hard Knock’s LIfe” show tune. In contrast, the set crew gives us the grand foyer of Daddy Warbucks’ home, with pale green walls, trim, and the staircase with a sculpture in a niche. While this might initially seem to be a formal, public area, it becomes a more private space where Annie and Daddy Warbucks warm each other hearts as they build trust in each other. There, out of the sight of the servants, they waltz with Annie standing on Warbucks‘ shoes. Additional scenes occur in Miss Hannigan’s office, the streets of NYC, including a Hooverville, and the NBC Radio’s studios.
Leah Swift portrays a strong willed and voiced Annie. Her presence enlivens the girl’s dorm and melts Warbucks’s heart. Bryan Ward needed no extra work to fit the role of Oliver Warbucks, other than donning a tuxedo. When I read his name in the program, I thought, “Of course.” His broad shoulders, bald head, stern eye, and warm smile are naturals for the role. Danyl Freeman takes Miss Hannigan over the top with each attempt she makes to find a man and romance in her life, whether swooning over the radio in her office, or winking at me in the front row (sorry, Randy Travis was not there that night). Now, did she actually own all those wild colored robes and boas? Bailey Coleman contrasts Freeman’s tipsy orphanage matron with her dignified Grace Farrell, Warbucks’ secretary. She is quick to notice Annie in the orphanage, whens she come to arrange for Warbucks to host an orphan for the Christmas season. She sings with a clear voice, while watching Annie blend into the tycoon’s home. Miss Hannigan’s brother, Rooster Hannigan (Jesse Hedrick) and floozy girlfriend Lily (Emma Martin) arrive mid-way through the show wearing a plaid jacket that was as loud and obnoxious as Rooster. When they learn about the reward offered by Warbucks, they scheme to pretend to be her parents to collect the reward. They had a good time hamming up the con artists trying to look like they had just found their daughter after 10 years.
Annie the Musical is a big cast show. There are lots of orphan girls. There are lots homeless people living in a Hooverville. There are lots of servants in Warbucks’ home. There are lots of performers at the NBC Radio studio. There are lots of brief walk on roles, such as the dog catcher, that add atmosphere between scenes. That means that there are lots of ensemble cast members, each portraying 2 or more roles in different scenes. What is nice about a community theatre, is that from show to show, we can see local people in the cast. Some are familiar from performing leading roles in prior shows, other are new to the stage. Those who are regulars, such as James Alt and Muryssa George, bring their experience to those who might be in their first show. Another feature of community theatre are families that perform together in a show. Reading the cast list, we see the Hersherberger, Alt, Keplinger, Richardson, Hardy, Bellingham families taking different roles.
Finally, community productions allow for symbolism that goes beyond the script. Did anyone else get the joke that JR Keplinger, one of our County Commissioners, played the dog catcher, given the recent demands at the County Commissioners’ meetings that the county needs a pet ordinance and dog catcher? More seriously, casting Bryan Ward, our newly elected sheriff, as Daddy Warbucks ties together his role in our county and his role on stage of protecting and providing for the most vulnerable in our society. What could be better community policing that being involved in a production that keeps dozens of folks busy for months in building sets, sewing costumes, and rehearsing? And, for two weekends, with full audiences, he knew for several hours where a good portion of the population in the county was. Add the preforming arts to the school and adult sports programs, FFA and 4-H clubs, for a community that is busy creating a quality life.
If you need a show topper, in this production of Annie the Musical, Arabelle Maher, as Molly, the smallest of the orphans, brought the house down. Giver her a line, she will recite it. Giver her a tune, she will sing it. Give her a dance step, she will hoof it. Hope I do not have to wait another 30 years to see her on stage!