“Class Act” Earns Its Name with “Annie”

As the overture began at Friday night’s opening of  “Annie,” it seemed evident that conductor Martin Van Maanen would be well-served by his fine, dozen-member orchestra of talented local musicians.  It was a jazzy ensemble with a kind of Dixieland / Ragtime appeal.  Of particular note were Paula Harrison on piano, and both George Chase (trumpet) and David Ford (trombone), who added luster to overture highlights like “Tomorrow.”

But on to the Main Event: The Class Act production of  “Annie.” Act I opens in the girl’s annex of a New York City orphanage.  There was a brief moment when one feared the rag-tag girls might become annoying as they teased each other in the opening scene.  But not to worry!  Those very girls would become a key element of the shows success.  The mood begins to lighten with the arrival of the genial laundry man, Bundles McCloskey, played by Greg Sones.

As for Annie, skillfully played by Danielle Odom, this was a Broadway caliber performance.  Her fine voice was almost always right on target.  Her dog, Sandy, was beautifully played by Brian Sattler’s dog of the same name.

For the most part, the many young performers seemed well prepared to speak and sing clearly, and without great amplification.  Throughout the evening, Conductor Van Maanen skillfully moderated the orchestra so the performers could be heard without difficulty.

In the role of Miss Hannigan, Lindsay Ashworth bursts upon the scene with a fresh comic energy that would make Carol Burnett proud.  At 3A.M., with liquor bottle in hand, she orders the orphans to “Clean this dump until it shines like the Chrysler Building!”  But she shows a special “sympathy” with lines like “Why any kid would want to be an orphan I just don’t know!”  Her facial expressions are hilarious.

When the girls lament their sad existence with It’s A Hard-Knock Life, we begin to realize the professional caliber of this production.  This is especially true when ensemble choral and dancing efforts are involved.  This is a great tribute to the skill of Director / Musical Director, Keith Brumfield and Asst. Director / Choreographer, Kathryn Goodfellow.  Costume Designers, Kay Gotschall and Sherri White, deserve credit for successfully scouting the thrift shops throughout the Houston area.

The “Hard-Knock” number was beautifully realized with near-perfect song and dance.  The vocal clarity was such that, for the first time, I could discern lyrics like: “No one cares for you a smidge, when you’re in an or-pha-nage!”  Even when I saw the show on Broadway in the 70’s, I am sure I missed that line.

The 59th St. Bridge “Hooverville” number was a good depression-era reminder for both performers and audience alike.  Again, the choral work and choreography were better than that of many productions I have seen in the “Big Apple.”  Annie brings the special brand of optimism that was her trademark:“Your fingers are cold? Be glad you have pockets!”  “You use newspapers for blankets?  Well you can read in bed!”  Here, and all through the show, the sets are modest, but highly effective.  Barbara Stoker (set design) and Roger Goodfellow (set construction) seem to understand Thoreau’s warning to “Simplify! Simplify!”

Next, Annie is selected to spend Christmas at the home of billionaire, Oliver Warbucks (Lance Kramer.)  Warbuck’s assistant, Grace, sweetly played by the lovely Kathy Gotschall, escorts her to the mansion.  Annie is greeted royally by Warbuck’s servants during a grand  “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here”. The domestic staff offered great vocal talent. Then, as Annie, Grace, and Warbuck’s stroll Manhattan under illuminated theater marquees, we are treated to an inventive “ N.Y.C.” that features clever  “frozen” tableaus of the various passers-by on a busy street.

Further comic antics ensue with the appearance of Hannigan’s con-artist brother, Rooster (Ryan Dammeier) and his “dumb blonde” girlfriend, Lily (Lindsay Arnold.) They join in a cute and raucous “Easy Street,” and eventually add suspense by trying to pass themselves off as Annie’s parents.

Returning to the subject of Mr. Kramer’s performance as Warbucks, it was a remarkable one.  For a 10th grade student (Woodlands H.S.) to so convincingly portray a business tycoon was fascinating to watch.  He brought such genuine feeling to the relationship with Annie that it was really quite touching.

Act II begins with the carnival atmosphere generated by the delightful entr’acte music of the orchestra.  Then we find ourselves at the NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center for the hilarious “Hour of Smiles” show hosted by Grant Hoffmeister in the role of Bert Healy.  In his outrageous plaid sport jacket and equally “loud” vest, Hoffmeister offers great comic timing and a wonderful spoof of glib M.C.s.  More fun comes from the campy, singing Boylan Sisters, played by Susie John, Kim Ogonosky, and Kim Casey.  Other silly highlights included ventriloquist, Fred McCracken (Jonathan Massey) and his puppet, Wacky, cleverly played by Michael Stablein.  Jonathan Larance offered more comic touches as the “Sound Effects Man” with tap shoes on his hands.

The Boylan Sisters sing You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile, which is then brought to perfection by our song-and-dance orphans in a rendition I doubt could be surpassed.  They are truly a joy to watch, and the audience was delighted.  When the number ended, I wished I had it on videotape to enjoy again.

Also in Act II, we had a marvelous F.D.R. portrayal by Mike Dzbenski.  He brought an infectious good humor and a singing voice we could have enjoyed more of.  As the President’s Honor Guard, Matt Massey added more amusement.

When Annie learns that Warbucks was unable to locate her real parents, our hearts break right along with hers. Kramer again projects great affection singing Something Was Missing.  Then Warbucks teams with Annie in an adorable I Don’t Need Anything But You..

The final scene is a beautiful Christmas Eve at the Warbuck’s mansion.  The engaging butler, Drake (Michael Pirics), begins the song “Annie,” which is sweetly sung by the servants.  By the way, the Christmas tree was gorgeous and should be put aside for the next area “Nutcracker.”

F.D.R. returns and foils the plot of Rooster and Lily as they attempt to pose as Annie’s parents.  The shimmering tree gleamed as the cast of over 50 students from area schools sang the obligatory “Tomorrow” encore to the appreciative audience.

(The Courier    7.10.98)

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
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