By Norwood Long
Special To The Standard
Who knew orphans could make you cry for joy? I had no choice when they are as talented, precise, individual, cheerful, and downtrodden but unbowed as the orphans in Northern Stage’s Annie, now at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction through January 8. And the chief orphan, Annie, played by local teen Molly Brown, is an astonishment—awkward and beautiful, feisty, always believable and optimistic, and with a voice so precise you could tune a piano with it, she almost made me believe in a story that is closer to farce than drama. To take nothing away from an excellent adult (and canine) cast, the orphans are the reason you should not miss this show.
Annie is set in the great Depression, with widespread unemployment—an eerie echo of today. Feisty Annie and her fellow orphans are suffering under the thumb of the tyrannical Miss Hannigan when Annie gets a chance to spend Christmas with industrialist Oliver Warbucks. There she meets President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and with her infectious optimism about “Tomorrow” sets him on the path of the New Deal. On the way Miss Hannigan gets her comeuppance, and Annie and her fellow orphan, stray dog Sandy, are adopted by Daddy Warbucks.
Miss Hannigan is played by veteran actress Gwendolyn Jones with such broad comic zest that it borders on parody. She, together with her brother, Rooster Hannigan (Joe Paparella) and his moll Lily St. Regis (Candi Boyd), provide the comic relief; their “Easy Street” is vintage Broadway song and dance. Paparella, in particular, slithers and slinks about the stage as if he owns it, with Boyd vamping only a step or two behind. As Daddy Warbucks, Broadway star Timothy Shew goes convincingly from truculent trampler of the downtrodden to fond father. He and Mollie Brown first met at Northern Stage when he played Jean Valjean and she played Cossette in Les Miserable two years ago, and there is genuine affection in their scenes together. Grace, Warbuck’s secretary, is played by Rebecca Pitcher as warm but reserved; her Cindarella moment makes Warbucks—and us—sit up and take notice. As FDR, Tom Tredwell is properly patrician and mannered, wheeling his wheelchair and waving his cigarette holder with panache. The rest of the company, versatile quick change artists all, play butlers, maids, out of work vagrants, radio actors, and White House Cabinet members convincingly and well, singing and dancing with ease and flair. This music is especially rich and precise in its choral moments.
Special notice should be given to Sandy, played by stray Macy, who was rescued from a shelter in Oklahoma by famed animal trainer Bill Berloni. In July of this year Berloni received a special Tony award for his years of providing the Sandys, Totos, and other trained animals to stage productions across America. Macy, as usual for a Berloni trained dog, performed flawlessly.
But as I said, my heart went out to the orphans, eleven local girls—twelve including Annie, twice the usual number in Annie—who sang and danced beautifully, and even managed to act as if they were having a good time. They are all graduates of Annie Camp, where 80 girls sang, danced, and acted, supervised by Northern Stage Choreographer Connor Gallagher and dance captain Tia Zorne last summer. Whether they go on to professional careers or not, their dedication and talent are unmistakable, and is an example of the thoroughness and care Northern Stage brings to its productions.
It is also a tribute to Northern Stage founder and director of this production, Brooke Ciardelli, who founded Annie Camp and then went on to provide the clear stage pictures, clean movement, pacing, and emotional focus that are the marks of a really good director. As usual her production staff provided a seamless backdrop of sets, lights, and sound. The costumes by Anna Lacivita were well thought through—lush, seedy, and period as needed.
The orchestra, under the direction of music director Joel Mercier, sounded full and rich, playing composer Charles Strouse’s sprightly and lyrical music well. In a discussion a few weeks before opening night, Mercier described what it was like to work with a young voice like Molly Brown’s, helping it develop without strain while singing Strouse’s demanding songs with their wide range. As Annie, Brown is on stage for nearly the entire performance, singing for most of that time, not easy even for seasoned adults.
There’s an old actor’s adage—never act with dogs or children, because either can capture an audience despite the talents and best efforts of the adults. This show has both, but it’s fair to say that even given the unlikely plot, all the actors—dogs, children, and adults alike—bring out all the warmth and sincerity implicit in Annie. A fine holiday treat.