Class Act Joyfully Revisits “Annie”

In 1998 I had the pleasure of reviewing an “ANNIE” that was one of the finest Class Act musicals I have ever seen. If that production set a somewhat unattainable standard for excellence, it didn’t matter a bit to the enthusiastic sell-out crowd at this week’s fun-filled opening night of Class Act’s latest “Annie” incarnation. On hand to warm up the audience before curtain time was Class Act veteran, Lance Kramer. He caused a near riot when playfully announcing that Brad Pitt had flown in from L.A. and was seated in the rear of the audience. (Kramer was a standout in the ’98 “Annie” production with a very convincing portrayal of Daddy Warbucks.)

The Woodlands High School graduate is now in the professional acting program of the prestigious North Carolina School of the Arts. Sandra Erlandson, lead theater teacher at TWHS, was quoted a year ago saying, “[Lance] is the best actor I have ever worked with in my 16 years of teaching theater at TWHS. He has won more awards and honors than any other student in the history of TWHS.” All of this is worth recounting because there is no doubt in my mind that through the years it has been the hard work of Class Act’s parents and production teams that has made this kind of success possible for the many youngsters that participate.

The current “Annie,” directed by Class Act founder, Keith Brumfield (with assistance from Leslie Reese), has much to offer. The fine pit orchestra was conducted by Martin Van Maanen, and served to delicately compliment the singers without ever overwhelming them. Frank “FB” Kern designed the attractive sets that were well lit by Lighting Designer, Blake Minor. The charming costume designs for over 50 characters were the work of Marie Boleslawski, Linda Estrada, and Caroline Zirilli. Bonnie Schuetz and Leslie Reese choreographed the many delightful dance sequences. Sound engineer, Alan Haigood, must have come to the rescue when an amplifier momentarily failed in the show’s opening moments.

In the title role there is a gentle sweetness from Jessica Frantz. She has shining red hair, a winning smile, and a talent for communicating emotions from joy to sorrow. Continued vocal training may bring her further success in musicals. Megan Kane humorously portrays the very mean orphanage director, Miss Hannigan. Kane, a Class Act veteran herself, has a comic flair that is complemented by her fine singing voice. She has a great screaming voice, too, but that is another story! Kane’s performance of “Little Girls” showed her Red Hot Mama power in the high notes.

C.A. veteran, Ross Bautsch, portrays Oliver Warbucks with warmth and bluster while bravely tackling the difficult vocal range required in many of Warbucks’ songs.  Warbucks’ assistant, Grace, is depicted with suitable grace and elegance by the vocally talented, Lindsay Gunther. Sandy (the dog) is wonderfully played by “Callie,” an adopted pet belonging to cast member, Caroline Hopkinson. If you haven’t seen Callie “sing” the finale, you’re missing a great moment in theater! Better hurry over to today’s final Montgomery College performance at the 2:30 p.m. matinee (For reservations and information call 936-273-3395).

The orphans earn star billing early with the rowdy “It’s the Hard Knock Life” number. And as for “stars,” let’s not forget the outstanding choral ensemble that first show’s its skill in the tongue-in-cheek Depression era number, “Hooverville.” The song is a great example of fine singing as well as the kind of wit and humor that make this show such a continuing winner. Yet another triumph for the choral ensemble was “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” with a strong performance from the mansion staff and fine lead singing from Miss Gunther in a duet with Annie. I wish I had the space here to name every youngster in the huge cast for making the ensemble singing so enjoyable.

Smashing costumes prevail when Annie is taken to Best & Co. for her stunning new red coat and dark purple velvet dress with matching beret. It reminded me of how my mother used to neglect my brothers and I, while spoiling my three sisters with an occasional outfit from Best’s! (Just kidding, Mom! I bet you bought us something too, but who remembers?)

There is more costume fun in the sassy attire of Hannigan, the loud, purple Zoot Suit of con artist, Rooster (Michael Stablein), and the floozy apparel of his girlfriend, Lily (played for whiny, “dumb blonde” laughs by Samantha Hardin). Kane leads the way in their jazzy trio of “Easy Street,” and the enthusiastic audience burst into applause before the three were done singing.

Act II opens with the amusing “Bert Healy Radio Show.” Dressed in blue satin and polka dots, the Boylan sisters (Laura Estrada, Liz Porter, and Karen Scherr) join Healy (talented Cam Bautsch, brother of Ross) in the cheerful “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.” Things get even better when the orphans reprise the number with wonderful, well-executed choreography. The girls did a great job here, and one very young lady, Abbey Moss, was dazzling in her desktop tap dance. She lit up the room in several scenes, and I predict she may become a Class Act standout in years to come.

Another fine performance came from Mitch Mitchell as Franklin D. Roosevelt. He brings us an FDR full of warmth, wisdom, and good humor. His Cabinet (humorously played by Larson Mandeville, Liz Porter, Ian Ramirez, Ted Summers-Minette and James Leighton) adds to the fun as they learn from Annie to look optimistically through the Depression toward a better “Tomorrow.” Before they are through, they invent the New Deal.

Ms. Frantz captures a crestfallen Annie’s heartbreak as she learns her treasured locket is not a sufficient clue to her missing parents. Rooster, Lily, and Hannigan try one last con job that fails; and as children around the world all know, everything ends happily beneath the Warbucks’ mansion Christmas tree. Cam Bautsch leads the servants in the title tune, “Annie,” and is joined by Miss Gunther whose voice here is as elegant as her stunning formal evening gown. The orphans arrive in beautiful pastel frocks, and the full cast sings us homeward with “New Deal For Christmas.” But no one left the theater before a long, and much-deserved standing ovation!

(The Courier    8.11.02)

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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 Lambs Club, he is also editor of The Lambs' Script. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic@earthlink.net.
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