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BWW Reviews: Ephrata's ANNIE is a Fabulous New Deal Among Area Productions

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ANNIE may be the world's most popular musical, judging by how often it's performed. It opened on Broadway in 1977, it's been performed everywhere, and just had a successful revival on Broadway. There's a new movie version of it that's opening for Christmas. If the advance buzz on the movie is true, call Ephrata Performing Arts Center and get in to see its production of ANNIE instead. EPAC's production is inspired. The movie? Apparently chasing the popcorn kernels at the bottom of the bucket will be the best part.

When this writer suggests that anything to do with a production of ANNIE is inspired, the reader is hearing the words of someone who is, quite publicly, sick and tired of ANNIE. That may be anathema to little girls who want to play her, and parents who are happy there's a family musical around occasionally, but see something roughly six times a year, in different productions, and suddenly washing the cat sounds like a fabulous evening of fun and excitement. So when this writer realized that director Irving Gonzalez had hit a formula for the show that wasn't one more formula production of it, during the first act, she rejoiced.

Very often, the character of Annie is sweetly adorable and chafing under the firm hand of Miss Hannigan. Annie, however, is intended to be a child made of piss and vinegar - she wants to find her parents, she wants a home, but she's had to survive. She's the toughest nut of Hannigan's orphans, loving to the other girls, especially the youngest, Molly, but she'll do what she needs to do - she attempts escapes, she manipulates, she plays angles; she's a true survivor of institutional life. Tori Moss, as Annie, brings out that edge. She cares about her sister orphans, but her instincts are to look out for herself, and if she can bring anyone else along, as with lost dog Sandy, she'll try. Tori is a fine young performer with a solid professional background already (among other parts, she was Young Eponine in the Fulton's LES MIS).

Kristie Ohlinger, an EPAC veteran, gives the tough-as-nails orphanage director her own slant - it's almost like watching Madeline Kahn play the villain here, and it works. Her "Little Girls" is indeed the stuff of Madeline Kahn, and well worth it at that.

The big revelation is, however, Kathleen Brantman's Grace, Oliver Warbucks' assistant. If you saw her Emma Goldman in ASSASSINS at EPAC, you know she can be tough - and this Grace Farrell is tough. She's often overplayed as young, soft, and fluffily sweet, but the personal assistant of some time to the nation's richest man, whose fortune is in munitions (hence the name "Warbucks"), needs to be sharp, businesslike, intelligent, and able to keep up with the machinations of the billionaire industrialist. No sweet, fluffy thing, Brantman's Grace Farrell shows up at Hannigan's orphanage ready to do business, and recognizes Annie's manipulations for what they are but is amused by them. She's as take-no-prisoners as her boss, and perfectly wonderful. When this writer saw her arrive in the orphanage in a business suit, ready to kick anyone who stood in the way of accomplishing her goal, happiness descended from the heavens.

Jim Rule's Oliver Warbucks is also well-conceived. Too many Warbucks crumble quickly at the adorability of the young orphan in the mansion; Rule's Warbucks isn't easy to impress or to sway. Far too many regional performances of this show also cut Warbucks' main solo, "Why Should I Change a Thing?" from the first act, but it's badly needed as it's the plot trigger point for Warbucks' softening towards Annie. Gonzalez has left it in, wisely, so that we can watch the iron-willed billionaire attempt to process his feelings for the child living in his house. Without the song, and without a strong, unyielding Warbucks like Rule, the sudden outpouring of emotion by Warbucks for Annie is disquieting if you think about it (and when one watches this show six times a year, there's a lot to think about).

Is this writer suggesting that ANNIE is at its best when it's not sweet, adorable, and family friendly? Hardly. The show has always been family fare, but it didn't start on Broadway intending to be only a fluffy whipped dessert. Rather, as written, it's more of a steak entrée, deserving to have a solid bite to it, giving adult audience members something to chew. It's a show about politics. It's a show about economics. It's a show about crime, and about what people without money will do to obtain it. Hannigan and her brother Rooster (a rakish Jeff Fisher) wind up developing a plot to get the reward money for finding Annie's parents, with the suggestion of what to do with Annie herself not precisely pleasant. Obscuring these points in favor of "cute" is untrue to the content of the show. Gonzalez and company are serving up the steak dinner, and giving the show its intended truths, not pulling out a mound of whipped cream with no substance under it but far too much sugar. The show is at its best when it's true to the script, not when it's covered with piped icing and maraschinos.

In the realm of "never work with children or animals" if you don't want to be upstaged, mention must be made of Genevieve Gagnon, a totally darling Molly (her stuck-in-the-bucket moment is worth the price of admission), and of Kody and Aili, the revolving Sandy cast. The dogs are bound to become divas demanding their own dressing rooms and bowls of treats. Yes, this crowd is stiff competition for the main cast. Fortunately, the rest of the ensemble, from orphans to Hooverville residents to Cabinet members and Warbucks staff members, manage to hold their own perfectly against a strong set of leads and the adorability factor of Gagnon and the Sandys.

Through the 21st at the Sharadin-Bigler Theatre in Ephrata, and really should play longer over the holidays. For tickets and information visit www.ephrataperformingartscenter.com or call 717-733-7966.


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