Theatre Review: Annie – its optimistic message lives on

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Thirty-three years ago Annie made its Broadway debut and twenty-six years ago it saw a more local debut as the first production at Richmond’s Gateway Theatre. While perhaps not quite as timeless as some of the other holiday favourites playing Vancouver stages right now, it still has a certain sweetness that will appeal to audiences looking for its optimistic message.

Based on the Little Orphan Annie comic strip that first appeared in American newspapers back in 1924 and ran until it’s final publication just this last June, the musical tells the story of 11-year-old Annie (Michelle Creber), the red headed orphan who’s determined to find her parents. Trapped in the Municipal Girls Orphanage in New York City run by the drunkard Ms Hannigan (Nora McLellan), Annie soon catches the eye of billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Timothy E Brummund) and even manages to help President Franklin Roosevelt (Arne Larsen) in coming up with his “new deal” for America. Along the way she finds her own pal in Max, a stray dog that she adopts as her own, and ultimately escapes a plan concocted by Hannigan’s brother Rooster (Matt Palmer) and his girlfriend Lily (Pippa Mackie) to swindle Warbucks out of $50,000 by claiming to be her real parents.

There is a lot riding on the shoulders of the young leading lady in any production of Annie and while Creber does a commendable job with the iconic “Tomorrow” and other numbers, she did seem to struggle against the poor sound that seemed to afflict this particular production. In fact, this was my biggest complaint of the evening, where at times complete scenes were lost as we struggled to hear what was being sung and said on stage, particularly with the younger members of the cast.

Nora McLellan as Ms Hannigan (right) and the orphans in the Gateway Theatre production of Annie. Photo by David Cooper.

While perhaps not as strong in their vocals, the orphans certainly made up for it in their ensemble dance numbers giving us a wonderful version of “Hard Knock Life” with a clever, albeit sometimes defeaning, routine with buckets on their feet and the second act opener “Fully Dressed” was a rousing start to a more solid final half.

Brummund does a good job with Daddy Warbucks (with a full head of hair I might add) and while he was definitely not the strongest singer amongst the adults last night, he took us on a wonderful journey as he progressed from the gruffness in the early scenes to finally accepting and embracing the optimism of the young Annie.

The real standout in this production, however, is Palmer’s Rooster. Not only could the man sing and dance, he brought the character to a whole different level with some very funny vocal and physical tics. Palmer is so polished in his character that his presence in the trio “Easy Street” gives the McLellan and Mackie so much to work against and confidence it was easily one of the highlights of the evening.

Drew Facey once again proves his worth as a set designer providing a fun New York skyline backdrop, a beautifully derelict orphanage and a little opulence in Warbucks’ mansion. Scene transitions are accomplished easily as the entire set turns, revealing each of the locales. While we cannot see what’s going on behind the scenes, the fact that Facey’s double-sided turntable actually becomes three distinct locales indicates there were some very busy stagehands.

Carmen Alatorre’s costumes easily capture the time period and the various classes of people that inhabit the show. Kennith Overbey is definitely having fun with the choreography although there did seem to be a little too much “stomping” around the stage which made hearing the actors even more difficult. Musical Director Allen Stiles does a good job with the small orchestra but again sound issues caused them to be a bit overpowering at times.

I suppose one would have to be a pretty big Grinch not to love the optimistic message that this show brings but that optimism and its intended brightness is not as great as it could be given the sound problems and actors not strong enough to overcome them.

3 Out of 5 Stars Annie

Book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin. Directed by Johnna Wright. Musical Direction by Allen Stiles. A Richmond Gateway Theatre Society production. On stage at the Richmond Gateway Theatre through December 31, 2010.

Tickets are available online or by calling 604-270-1812.

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