Sunday, November 14, 2021

"Annie" at Children's Theatre Company

A healthy dose of optimism is exactly what I needed last Friday night, when it seems like coming out of this pandemic is one step forward and two steps back, on top of all of the other problems the world is facing right now. And optimism is exactly what Children's Theatre Company's production of Annie delivers, in spades. Ten years later, they're remounting their 2011 production with most of the creative team and even some of the cast returning. It's the first live performance at CTC since their original play Spamtown, USA closed early due to the pandemic 20 months ago, and it's a joyous return. Despite being written in the '70s and taking place in the '30s, Annie clearly resonates with 2021. People living in poverty struggling to survive while others live on "Easy Street," and bad feelings towards a former president who left us with mess to clean up, are stories that could've been pulled from today's headlines. Annie shows us the power of "Little Girls," at a time when we're looking to the younger generations, and women of all ages, to lead us out of today's challenges and into a better "Tomorrow."

JoeNathan Thomas and Audrey Mojica
(photo by Katilin Randolph)
Theatre Latte Da's Peter Rothstein returns to direct the show, and as usual brings out all of the truth, beauty, and humanity of the piece. Kelli Foster Warder ably takes over choreography from Michael Matthew Ferrell, who choreographed the 2011 production and sadly passed away this year. This is a big show with a huge cast and a lot of moving pieces, and everything falls into place smoothly under their leadership. CTC's resident music director Victor Zupanc returns to lead the six-piece orchestra on this score that is one hit after another. And much of the 2011 design team returns as well, including scenic designer Vicki Smith (the NYC skyline ever-present in the background as set pieces glide on and off stage to transition us from an orphanage to a 5th Avenue mansion) and costume designer Rich Hamson (colorful period costumes that range from shabby chic to impossibly elegant). It's a timely and welcome remount of this charming classic.

never underestimate the power of "Little Girls"
(photo by Glen Stubbe Photography)
The large, diverse, and talented cast is led by a pack of "Little Girls" who are the true stars of this show, belting their little hearts out. Chief among them is Audrey Mojica as Annie (alternating in the role with Lola Ronning), who at a young age already has a long bio. She's confident, open-hearted, energetic, and fully embodies this tough but tender little girl we all love. As the billionaire Mr. Warbucks, JoeNathan Thomas comes on as a tough, stoic, preoccupied business man, but believably transforms into a big ole softie after spending time with Annie. His deeply resonant voice provides gravity to the character, and when that gruffness smooths out into song it's a beautiful thing.

Emily Gunyou Halaas, Reed Sigmund, and Autumn Ness
are living on "Easy Street" (photo by Glen Stubbe Photography)
Reprising their roles from the 2011 production are four CTC company members having great fun and providing much of the comic relief. Gerald Drake and Dean Holt play too many roles to count (thinking about their costume changes makes my head spin), and married couple Reed Sigmund and Autumn Ness nearly steal the show as the deliciously wicked gum-swapping con artist couple Rooster and Lily, particularly Reed's cock of the walk physicality and bwok-bwoking his way through the dialogue. Completing the dynamic "Easy Street" trio is Emily Gunyou Halaas, a hoot as Miss Hannigan. She fully commits to being the bad guy in the story, emotionally, vocally, and physically, and makes us love to hate her. Last but not least, rising star Janely Rodriguez plays Warbucks' assistant Grace with a voice and character as clear as a bell.

the cast of Annie (with Lola Ronning as Annie)
(photo by Glen Stubbe photography)
This show is a love letter to NYC, my favorite city in the world, that I've greatly missed in the more than two years since I've been there. This production does a great job of replicating the busyness of the streets filled with people from all walks of life in a mesmerizing feat of organized chaos. And Annie isn't Annie without a well-trained real live dog upstaging every human onstage, in this case the Broadway star Sunny who has played Sandy for nearly ten years on Broadway and around the country.

Children's Theatre knows their audience, and they've trimmed the piece to a manageable two hours including intermission (in contrast to touring Broadway shows geared towards children than run way too long and late). Be sure to pick up a program on the way in as it includes several articles and activities to further engage kids in the world and experience of the show. Particularly interesting is an article by CTC's Director of Community Partnerships and Inclusion, Michael Winn, in which he connects the world of "Little Orphan Annie" with the Harlem Renaissance, both occurring in early 20th Century NYC. This helps inform the color-conscious casting that imagines a world in which a Black man could be a billionaire in 1930s America.

Annie plays now through January 9 and is a great choice to bring a little joy and optimism into you and your family's lives during these dark days* (click here for info and tickets).

photo by Glen Stubbe Photography

*Annie isn't specifically a holiday show, although it does include a scene at Christmas, but it's a holiday outing for many families. Click here to read about all of the holiday shows I've seen this year.