This year’s Christmas musical at the Garfield Center for the Arts is based on one of the most popular comic strips of all time – “Little Orphan Annie.” Directed by Jennifer Kafka-Smith, with musical direction by Julie Lawrence, the show brings a winning combination of singable music, memorable characters, a melodramatic plot, and an energetic cast – sparked by an enthusiastic group of “orphans.” It’s the classic story of an orphan who finally finds a home – and a dog! – at Christmas.
Annie was first performed in 1976 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam Connecticut. Written by Thomas Meehan, with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin, it is set in New York City in 1933, when the Great Depression was at its worst. Meehan began working on the idea in 1972, studying the original comic strip by Harold Gray. But except for the characters of Annie, Daddy Warbucks and Annie’s dog Sandy, he found little in the strip that he thought could work in a musical. So he created an original plot, essentially an “origin story” tracing Annie’s life in the orphanage and her meeting with Sandy and Warbucks. It is also quite consciously modeled on Charles Dickens’ several novels featuring orphans, notably Oliver Twist (which was also the basis for a successful Broadway musical).
The result was an immediate hit – Annie ran on Broadway from 1977 to 1983, closing after 2,377 performances at the Alvin Theater. Nominated for 11 Tony Awards, it brought home seven – including Best Book, Best Score, and Best Musical. It also won seven Drama Desk Awards, and the original cast album won a Grammy. Its popularity has inspired numerous revivals in countries around the world, as well as a hit film in 1982, with Albert Finney as Warbucks, Carol Burnett as the villainous Miss Hannigan, and newcomer Aileen Quinn in the title role. It was adapted as a made-for-TV movie by the Walt Disney Company in 1999, There have also been several made-for-TV “sequels,” as well as a novelization by Meehan – incorporating several plot elements that had to be cut from the musical.
Annie brings a large cast to the Garfield stage, with nearly 30 human actors and one dog. A large cast can be a problem for local theater productions, but Kafka-Smith has found solid performers for every part. It was particularly enjoyable to watch the orphans – nine girls in a range of sizes and ages – singing up a storm, dancing with true abandon, and clearly enjoying every minute of their on-stage time. Izzie Squire Southworth plays Annie and has excellent co-conspirators in her comrades in the orphanage: Kynlee Cahall, Olivia Coppage, Alden Swanson, Ava Hoffer, Marin Boone, Averie Hitzges, Finley Ewing, and Lauren Farley. A lot of hard work clearly went into getting ready for this performance, and it was worth every minute.
Izzie Southworth, cast as Annie, is, of course, the focus of all the drama, and she does a fine job in the role. Previously cast as Susan in Miracle on 34th Street, last year’s Garfield Christmas show, she captures the character’s spunk and determination, and delivers her big musical number, “Tomorrow,” with plenty of spirit.
John Mann, who has been in numerous plays at both the Garfield and Church Hill Theatre, makes his musical debut as Daddy Warbucks. He displays a nice baritone voice, and his acting in the role of the benevolent capitalist is flawless.
The villain of the piece, Miss Hannigan, is played by Melissa McGlynn, whose talents as an actress, singer, and dancer are no secret to anyone who’s followed local theater. But this role brings out a whole new dimension. Her over-the-top portrayal of the hard-hearted, hard-drinking headmistress of the orphanage may be her best role yet.
Brad Chaires and Natalie Lane have supporting roles as Hannigan’s con-man brother Rooster and his sleazy girlfriend, Lily St. Regis. The two try to pawn themselves off as Annie’s real parents in order to win a $50,000 reward. They make a very effective team with McGlynn. Together the three of them are a riot! You don’t want to miss their big song-and-dance number, “Easy Street.”
Annie Sparks does a nice job in the important supporting role of Grace Farrell, Warbucks’ secretary. And Robin Wood brings President Franklin D. Roosevelt to life, both in voice and mannerisms – a good job in a role that lends the play a lot of its period flavor. As an added ingredient, FDR’s cabinet is augmented with local “celebrities” in every performance. Dr. Mel Rapellyea and Pam Duke, both Garfield board members, filled out the cabinet in the performance we saw. Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino took the stage on opening night. There will be two different local celebrities in each performance over the three-week run of the play.
In addition to the major and supporting roles, Annie also has a very multi-talented ensemble of actors, singers, and dancers who take on multiple roles in multiple scenes, adding texture and depth to the play. In the Hooverville scene, they are the unemployed and homeless, huddling around a trash can fire to share a meal. In other scenes, they portray residents of New York City and the staff of Warbucks mansion–all the time singing and dancing. You know that there’s a lot of quick costume changes going on backstage!
It’s nice to see several family groups in this production. Annie is played by Izzie Squire Southworth and her older sister–coincidentally named Annie– is a member of the singing and dancing ensemble. David Ryan and his son Zach Ryan each have several roles. Ryan Ewing plays Bert Healey, the radio host, while his daughter Finley is one of the orphans.
In this large cast, last but by no means least is Sandy the dog, played by Auggie, also a dog. Auggie is a five-year-old Border Collie who is absolutely winning as Sandy, Annie’s stray dog. Auggie is a rescue dog who was adopted–so also an orphan– in 2015 by Skylar Landis who trained Auggie for the role and stays with him backstage during the play. Auggie is perfect in one of the show’s iconic roles. Woof!
For this production, the directors chose to use a pre-recorded accompaniment rather than a live orchestra. While I always prefer to hear real musicians, the recorded music works well and does ensure a degree of consistency – perhaps an asset considering the large cast and the varying experience levels of the actors. Not surprisingly for such a large cast, there are the occasional off-notes but on the whole, the musical numbers are excellent. And there are quite a few members of the cast who exhibited beautiful singing voices–Annie Sparks, Julie Lawrence, Connie Fallon, Heather Joyce-Byers, and David Ryan to name a few. Maya McGrory has a very sweet solo as a tourist/visitor in the NYC scene. Kudos to Lawrence for yet another first-class musical performance.
The costumes also add an important period feel, from the orphans’ raggedy dresses to the more elaborate outfits of the older characters. Costume credit goes to Barbie Bedell and her assistant Kat O’Grady Melson. Kimberly Stevens’ choreography is one of the ingredients that help make this show a fully integrated theatrical experience. And there’s something extra to enjoy in almost every scene – I especially liked the radio show set, where an assistant (David Ryan) held up an “APPLAUSE” sign at appropriate intervals, and a ventriloquist (Zach Ryan) sat with his puppet on the side of the set while at a trio of sisters sang a toothpaste commercial.
But the truest test of a dramatic production is the audience’s reaction, and practically from the first appearance of the orphans in their bunk beds, the audience was enthusiastically applauding. This is an infectiously enjoyable show – just the thing to get you into a holiday mood. Needless to say, it’s a good show to take younger audience members to – I can’t imagine a better introduction to musical theater. Highly recommended for all ages.
Annie will be running through Dec. 8, with performances at 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays. Due to the popularity of the show – reservations are definitely recommended. The Sunday matinee on Nov. 24 was a complete sellout, and more sellouts are likely. Also, the theater has announced that it will not accept unpaid reservations for this show. Online ticket sales will cease three hours before the opening curtain for each performance.
Tickets can also be purchased online here via Eventbrite or by calling the theater at 410-810-2060 or in person at the box office, Wednesday through Friday from 10 to 3, Saturday 11 to 2. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for seniors (65 and up) or active military, and $10 for students.