A few years ago a good friend confided to me that he was having difficulty getting into the Christmas spirit. If you know any people with a similar problem, be sure to get them down to the Masquerade Theater right away while there is still time to see the wonderful current production of “Annie.” It seems as though every seat is an orchestra seat in this quaint theater with fewer than 100 seats. The house is as intimate as the cast is enthusiastic. Ably directed by Phillip Duggins, this musical’s joyful Christmastime conclusion always lifts the spirits; and with the musical talents of the12 delightful young girls playing the orphans, you are assured a very good time!
The poignant opening number, “Maybe,” was as sweet and clear as the finest church bell. Overseeing the orphanage is Miss Hannigan, played with suitable tyranny by both Kayleen Clements and Stephanie Bradow who alternate in the role. The girls mock Hannigan like a chorus of Cinderellas in their bucket-snapping showstopper, “Hard-Knock Life.” With its noisy and clever choreography (Joshua Ryan), it reminded me of the “Walker Dance” performed by the chorus of little old ladies in the current Broadway smash, “The Producers.”
Russell Freeman doubles nicely in the role of President Franklin Roosevelt, and adds lots of fun to the part of Mr. Bundles, the laundry man who brings the orphans “…clean sheets once a month whether you need them or not!” Bill O’Rourke does a great comic turn as the Irish cop. Meanwhile, the printed program declares that Annie’s sweet dog, Sandy, is played by “…an adorable, talented mutt adopted from the Humane Society.” I would have to agree with both adorable and talented. Sandy steals the show during the familiar song, “Tomorrow,” which was beautifully sung by our talented Annie (Alison Luff). Also worth mentioning is the well-designed (Russell Freeman) split-level set that serves the production effectively throughout the show.
An almost surrealistic quality surrounds the robust tramp chorus in the humorous song spoofing Depression era politics, “Thank You, Herbert Hoover!” The Opening Night’s Hannigan may have been seasoned with a bit too much “ham” during the number “Little Girls.” Pretty Rebekah Dahl is perky and delightful as Warbuck’s assistant, Grace. She shows her strong, pleasant voice as she joins Annie and the servants for “I’m Gonna Like It Here.” The servant chorus did an exceptional job in both song and dance. Chad Knesek, as Daddy Warbucks, knows how to milk the humor while playing an excessive millionaire who calls captains of industry and politicians by their first names, while trying to decide if the “Mona Lisa” would be a good investment. But Knesek is at his very best when he brings his fine singing voice to tunes like “N.Y.C.” (With Dahl and chorus), and the tender “Something Was Missing.” When he and Annie pair for “I Don’t Need Anything But You,” we have a duet that is full of fun and vocal excellence.
The popular “Easy Street” trio from Hannigan, Rooster (Mr. Ryan), and Lily (Katherine Randolph), was too heavy-handed and off-key for this reviewer. It fared no better during the later reprise. Much more enjoyable was the song “F.B.I.” from Grace and the servants.
In Act II we can again enjoy the talents and resonant voice of Mr. O’Rourke as radio host, Bert Healy. A high point is his “Your Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile.” There was great back up from the Boylan Sisters (Clements, Bradow, Randolph and Sara Macerelli). The orphans then echo the song beautifully and bring such naturalness to Ryan’s fine choreography that they could teach the grown-ups a thing or two!
In F.D.R.’s office there are Cabinet debates about the war and the economy that seem strangely contemporary in this post-September 11th world. Freeman gives us a humorous and affectionate Roosevelt; and when F.D.R. says, “My administration is going to be optimistic about the future of this country,” it could be a line from yesterday’s George W. Bush news conference. There is a touching waltz for Annie and F.D.R., who then join the Cabinet to provide a touching reprise of “Tommorow.” The finale’s Christmas décor is as bright and cheerful as Annie’s red Christmas dress. Rooster and Lily add comic touches claiming to be Annie’s parents, and Annie’s revulsion is hilariously put over by the many talented Miss Luff. Her performance in the lead was outstanding. Go, bring the children, and have yourself a merry little “ANNIE!”
The Masquerade Theatre is located at 1537 N. Shepherd in the Heights. (Moments from the Durham/N. Shepherd exit of loop 610) Beer, wine and snacks are available at performances. “Annie” runs November 30 – December 22, 2001. For times and reservations call 713-861-7045. All Tickets are $25.00.