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BWW Reviews: Sparkling, Delightful ANNIE Graces the Stage at Theatre by the Sea

Don't dismiss Theatre by the Sea's current production as "just another" summer stock Annie. Matunuck's staging of this long-time family-favorite musical is one of the best of Rhode Island's theatricals so far this year.

TBTS's leading lady bowed out of the show due to illness not 24 hours before press night. In true "the show must go on" style, 14-year-old actress Lauren Weintraub - who played Annie last season at TBTS's sister venue, North Shore Music Theatre - arrived from Sudbury, MA and stepped in to cover the role at a moment's notice.

With only 6 hours of rehearsal time to spare, Miss Weintraub completely mastered her part and turned in a flawless performance. This young lady is a star in the making, not only for her eleventh-hour fortitude, but for a strong, developed singing voice, a sparkling stage presence, and polished acting skills. She is an endearing, enchanting Annie with both sweetness and strength evident in her portrayal of the character. Weintraub's pluckiness comes across the footlights so naturally that even the show's most familiar standard "Tomorrow" has genuine feeling and freshness to it.

Annie has been a mainstay of the musical-theater stage since its Broadway debut in 1977. The spirited red-headed orphan's quest to find her long-lost family sits at the heart of the show and resonates with audiences of all ages. With only a faded note and half a silver locket to guide her search, the determined Annie runs away from an abusive life at a dreary city orphanage and steps out into the streets of Depression-Era New York. Though her initial escape plan fails, a chance encounter with "the richest man in the world" brings hope and a new outlook on life to Annie and to the other characters she meets along the way.

One of the most colorful of these characters is Miss Hannigan, headmistress at the Girls' Annex of The New York City Municipal Orphanage, and Jan Neuberger takes to this role with relish. Neuberger is an excellent comedienne and she fully inhabits Miss Hannigan - who is never too far from a conveniently-placed bottle - from head to toe. Neuberger's slightest movements and facial expressions contain an ideally-timed humor and convey Hannigan's perpetual hangover, especially well done during her frazzled rendition of "Little Girls."

Todd Fenstermaker stars as Oliver Warbucks, the shrewd-dealing businessman who retains his great wealth even at the height of the Depression. Fenstermaker gives Warbucks the forceful personality that makes him the intimate of moneymen and presidents, and he uses that very blustering confidence to make his character entirely clueless about dealing with a precocious child. He gradually transitions Warbucks' relationship with Annie from wary hesitation to blundering enthusiasm, and this development is bolstered by the solid rapport between Fenstermaker and Weintraub. The two give heartfelt performances in "Something was Missing" and "I Don't Need Anything but You," and the actors, like their on-stage counterparts, make a fantastic team.

Margaret Loesser Robinson plays Warbucks' personal secretary, Grace Farrell, with great poise and dignity. That composure is even more felt on the rare occasions when Robinson allows Grace's mask to oh-so-slightly slip for a glimpse at her underlying emotions and depth of feeling. Robinson works well with both Weintraub and Fenstermaker, and her scenes with Neuberger - the decorous Grace so entirely opposite of Miss Hannigan's over-the-top animation - are especially fun to watch.

Annie's friends at the orphanage are played by Taylor Rose Donovan, Lily McMahon, Jennifer Pamula, Nina A. Pezzello, Emma Senerchia, and Eva Senerchia, and they ably blend the optimism of childhood with varying touches of toughness consistent with their upbringing and length of time spent in the Girls' Annex. These children are dynamic actors in their own right; their commitment to the performance stays at top form throughout the show without losing an iota of eagerness from start to finish. The girls turn in impressive musical numbers, particularly "It's the Hard-Knock Life" at the opening of the production and the second-act showstopper, "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile."

Annie boasts a superior ensemble cast, including Tom Roberts as Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose subtle humor and spot-on timing make for a most engaging character. Roberts' overly-earnest, sprechgesang reprise of "Tomorrow" is a highlight of the second act.

Greg London plays several roles and is especially notable in his portrayal of Warbucks' aloof butler, Drake, who takes an immediate shine to young Annie. London makes Drake's growing attachment to the red-headed orphan thoroughly endearing and amusing.

Hannigan's oily brother Rooster and his vacant girlfriend Lily are well played by Nathaniel Shaw and Becca Gottlieb. Their spry song-and-dance ode to "Easy Street" (also featuring Neuberger) highlights both the comedy and the menace inherent in the Hannigan siblings.

Bill Berloni-trained pooch Macy has only a small role as Annie's dog, Sandy, but the furry thespian steals every scene she enters.

David Costa-Cabral fashioned top-notch costumes for this production and his designs take in a wide range, from the tattered clothing of the poverty-stricken denizens of Hooverville to the glamorous evening gowns of the city's elite set. Bert Scott's set likewise transitions from the drab-gray tones of the down-at-heels New York back streets to the brightly-colored NBC radio studio to the glittering Warbucks Mansion.

The entire cast is to be commended for carrying on in full costume (including woolen coats, scarves and gloves, long underwear, and even a full Santa Claus suit) in the oppressive heat and humidity blanketing New England on press night. Theatre by the Sea's one drawback is its lack of air conditioning; during a heat wave, overhead fans and sea breezes only go so far toward audience and performer comfort. Still, Annie's on-stage energy never once flagged, and the song-and-dance routines - with especially impressive choreography in "N.Y.C." and "I Think I'm Going to Like it Here" - were as robust and lively as they would have been in an air-cooled building.

Performances of Annie run through August 10, 2013 at Theatre by the Sea. Tickets range from $39-59 and can be purchased online at www.theatrebythesea.com, by phone (401) 782-8587, or in person at the TBTS box office, 364 Cards Pond Road, Matunuck, RI.

Photo Credit: Paul Lyden

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