BWW Review: ANNIE Is Looking Swell and Spiffy in Sparkling Chaffin's Barn Revival
If there is a more perfect pooch to portray Annie's Sandy than Rufus Stewart, then his humans should produce said canine for an upcoming production of the beloved Broadway musical post-haste. Until such time as that occurs, we are simply going to claim Rufus as the quintessential canine co-star for any number of red-headed moppets singing about "Tomorrow" while palling around with FDR, Frances Perkins, Harold Ickes and others of their political ilk.
Annie is, in fact, just the thing to lift our spirits and pull us all out of the overheated midsummer doldrums and, thanks to director Joy Tilley Perryman and her creative band of collaborators at Nashville's iconic Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, the upbeat and optimistic story of a plucky orphan could come at no more perfect a time than now. Professionally polished and burnished so that the very production gleams as bright as the top of the Chrysler Building, Chaffin's Barn's latest iteration of Annie proves once more why the musical is so insanely popular and providing testimony about how it has stood the test of time since its Broadway premiere in 1977.
As hard as it may be to believe, Annie has been part of the canon of American musical theater for more than four decades - and its beginnings go all way back to 1924 (so we're nearing her centennial as a bona fide American icon) and the debut of Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie comic strip - and with the recent passing of Martin Charnin, whose clever lyrics help to define an era in the evolution of musical theater and who directed the show's original main stem production, Annie seems all the more relevant (and diverting) today.
With Perryman's imaginative direction and Lauri Dismuke's sprightly and spirited choreography, which at once seems conventional and somehow innovative for the pair's in-the-round staging at the Barn, the character of Annie is as current as today's headlines: a young girl focused on reuniting with her long lost parents will stop at nothing to realize her dreams. If there's a better treatment of the search for the American dream than this, show it to me!
To Perryman's credit, her cast for this 2019 production is filled with a cast of fresh-faced newcomers at Chaffin's Barn, along with some of the more beloved figures we've come to expect in musicals at the 54-year-old venue. Perryman and her team make grand use of the intimate confines of the space, employing every possible square inch to bring the show to life with vigor and imagination.
Miriam Creighton and Jenny Noel's costumes for the huge cast recall the Depression era with a requisite fashion sense that helps establish the time and place for the onstage action. Daniel DeVault's lighting design helps the audience focus their attention where it needs to be and provides an illuminating aspect to the production as a whole.
Taking on the title role for opening night, Ava Rivera (who shares the acting assignment with Elle Wesley) showed off her amazing stage presence throughout, performing the score with aplomb and confidence and delivering a portrayal of the spunky heroine that is nothing short of delightful. Whether she's onstage with Galen Fott - who's simply swell as the chrome-domed, billionaire industrialist Oliver Warbucks, managing to capture his character's dual natures of hard-boiled business tycoon and soft-hearted and sentimental best pal an orphan could ever meet - or her posse of fellow orphans (Lilah Benjamin, Abigail Levy, Olivia Harper, Adriana Rivera, AnnaLaura Lyon and Samantha McWright filled out the ranks on the show's first night), Rivera held her own, leading the younger contingent with confidence and going toe-to-toe with her more senior co-stars, including the wonderful Jenny Norris as the boozy, floozy, flirtatious and ribald Miss Hannigan, the duplicitous director of the Depression era orphanage she calls home.
Perryman shows her hand with some ideal casting for the production, including the pairing of Curtis LeMoine and Christina Candilora as the scene-stealing Rooster Hannigan and Lily St. Regis, who enter the scene at the perfect moment to inject some energy and high-flying levity into the proceedings. LeMoine and Candilora command the stage with their thoroughly committed and colorful performances.
Natalie Rankin shows off her amazing versatility and lovely voice as Grace Farrell, Warbucks' astoundingly efficient and amazingly lovely girl Friday, while W. Scott Stewart, Vicki White and Morgan Riggs show off their own strengths in a variety of roles including the Warbucks' mansion staff. J. Robert Lindsey makes an impactful Barn debut as radio charmer Bert Healey, with Hannah Clark, Delaney Jackson and Katie Yeomans as the Boylan Sisters. Kelsey Brodeur brings down the house with her spirited contribution to "N.Y.C" as the star-to-be; her gorgeous voice is one you'll definitely want to hear more of for years to come. Daron Bruce gives a notable turn as FDR, capturing the president's voice and verve with a certain style and grace, and the remainder of the show's estimable ensemble blend together for some of the sweetest harmonies we've heard on the Chaffin's Barn stage for 40-some years.
And then there's Rufus, who steals the heart of every person within the range of his bark with a noteworthy, if altogether too brief, appearance as the orphaned canine who becomes Annie's best pal.
Annie. Book by Thomas Meehan. Lyrics by Martin Charnin. Music by Charles Strouse. Directed by Joy Tilley Perryman. Choreographed by Lauri Dismuke. Presented by Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, 8204 Highway 100, Nashville. Through August 2. For tickets and other information, call (615) 646-9977 or go to www.chaffinsbarntheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.
photos by Michael Scott Evans