BWW Reviews: ANNIE Takes Over the Stage in Chambersburg
Has ANNIE really been around for nearly 40 years? It always seems newer than that, no matter how tired we may be of bad televised auditions of kids without talent belting "Tomorrow" at the top of their lungs, something so common now that it was used in the first few episodes of "Boston Legal" as a plot device, and the sight of bushy orange Annie wigs has become irksome. Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin's music and lyrics are ubiquitous, and there are some years the show plays absolutely everywhere - it's been done around half a dozen times in the past theatre season alone in this region. Chambersburg Community Theatre, however, has been able to avoid the clichés and the pitfalls and to produce something that's a cut above the usual community production of what is really a much harder-to-produce show than it looks.
Director Shawn R. Martin presented CCT's ANNIE at the Capitol Theatre in Chambersburg with one of the most crucial things for a good production of ANNIE - some real chemistry between the Orphan herself and billionare Oliver Warbucks. The show has to have the right chemistry, because all too often Warbucks, who's unhappy to see a girl in his house, immediately falls for the adorable child. Care's got to be taken that he doesn't fall so hard and so fast that the adoption question doesn't feel weirdly like a proposal, and the wrong pairing only feeds into that. But Torrence Brown's Annie, who's sporting lovely red real curls, not a clown wig, feels genuine. Brown's got stage presence, and should have it in her twelfth production at age 10, and she can sing; she's also not too cloyingly sweet. Lee R. Merriman's been on stage since 1964 - all right, he started at 3, so it's not that bad - and has the experience to keep Oliver Warbucks the sort of guy who eats nails for breakfast and who isn't ready to fall all over Annie's adorable curls in thirty seconds or less. Their initial meeting is wary, their later ones increasingly thawing, the way you'd expect the awkward arrangement to be in real life.
Equally real? Stephanie Allee's no-nonsense Grace Farrell, smart and classy but streetwise, and Rachel Kern's Miss Hannigan. Those are two parts that often fall into bad clichés as well - Farrell as in love with her boss, Hannigan as a drunken fool, but CCT has avoided both of those as well. Kern is a delight next to most Hannigans - she's got a healthily bad attitude, a hatred of bureaucracy that may be larger than her dislike of little girls, and a look of chronic dyspepsia that's a thing of beauty in expressing her sheer frustration with her life. Allee's Farrell is competent, honest, and a step ahead of her boss, where a good assistant always needs to be. They're actually supposed to reflect two models of working women in the 1920's and 1930's (one of whom is not coping well at her career), not to be funny puppet characters, and these two women bring those models to life.
The orphans are as adorable as the orphans always are, although this crowd can also act - their "Hard Knock Life" is sung as well as it's staged. Hannigan's "Little Girls" is a cut above most performances, reminiscent of Sally Struthers' delivery of the number. And, of course, a nod goes out to this production's Sandy, the charming Bailey. Like most community production performers Bailey has a day job, his as a therapy dog, but he knows what to do on a stage and is a veteran Sandy, having played the part in the past.
One of the best points of this particular production has been the costuming. Annie's wardrobe isn't merely rags and party dresses, and her dresses are clearly period children's wear. The adult costuming is similarly on target, and Vicki Gontz and Trish Keifman deserve praise for getting everything so right. Even Grace Farrell's evening dress asks to be a Constance Bennett movie dress, it's so perfectly period. Rachel Kern's set design is similarly fine, and proves that the old-fashioned backdrop set can still work perfectly on a Modern Stage. The Warbucks house set is particularly nice.
Martin and the cast are also responsible for some nice stage business. The scene at the radio show is particularly praiseworthy - Bert Healy, his sound effects man, and Jimmy Johnson, invisible to the listening audience, are in the midst of a poker hand while the lovely Boylan Sisters sing. It's a piece of business this reviewer has never seen before through many productions of ANNIE, and it's the best move I've seen to liven up that scene. That and "NYC" call for well-handled movement and puttering about, and while Allenberry's production of ANNIE had the best business I've seen in the area for "NYC", this is the best stage business I've seen anywhere for the radio scene.
CCT can be proud of this production, which was justly sold out. We'll be looking forward to more of this kind of show from them, and anyone outside Franklin County who can make the drive to Chambersburg may wish to check what CCT is doing. Shows are presented in downtown Chambersburg at the Capitol Theatre, one of the many lovingly restored theatres in the area. ANNIE closed on November 24; for information on upcoming shows and for ticket information, visit CCT at www.cctonline.org.