Regional Reviews: Phoenix
For anyone who hasn't seen this show, or if you need a refresher on the plot, Annie is set in 1933 during the Great Depression and was based on the characters from Harold Gray's long running comic strip, "Little Orphan Annie." The story of the musical follows the spunky, red-headed orphan Annie who befriends a scruffy dog and loves her fellow orphan girls but never loses hope that her parents will one day finally turn up to take her away from the dreary orphanage overseen by the horrible Miss Hannigan. Meanwhile, billionaire Oliver Warbucks is looking for an orphan to spend Christmas at his mansion. Fate intervenes and Annie finds herself tugging at the heartstrings of Warbucks, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and most likely every audience member as well before the show's heartwarming ending.
You can chalk up the success of this musical to the infectious score, which features Charles Strouse's memorable and upbeat music and Martin Charnin's heartfelt and humorous lyrics, and Thomas Meehan's fast-paced book, which doesn't have any fat and instills a nice sense of warmth while providing both comedy and character growth, especially on the part of Warbucks.
Director and choreographer Cambrian James ensures the Hale production is infused with plenty of upbeat and bright dance numbers along with a nice amount of humor as well as many emotionally rich moments. One of the complaints I've had with past productions of this show is when Annie and her fellow orphans are portrayed as overly sweet and cutesy, which can come across as cloying and irritating, or when the comedy borders on being flat and two-dimensional, just like the comic strip characters the musical was based on, or too over the top and broad. That isn't the case here, where there is a nice edge in the performances and humor that is both realistic and very funny.
Julia Pitman is a charmer as the feisty yet lovable, and always optimistic, Annie. Pitman has a lovely singing voice plus a winning stage presence, and she adds a bit of honesty and truth into her performance that makes it quite believable. As Warbucks, Joey Morrison is bold, brash, and all business at first but turns into a giant teddy bear once Annie softens his heart. He has a rich, soulful singing voice and a commanding take on the character. Kathleen Richards is bright, brassy and boozy as Miss Hannigan. Like Pitman, she instills the part with a realistic edge that adds layers to the character, and her superb singing voice and comic timing excel on her songs and in her comically delicious delivery of her dialogue.
As Warbucks' secretary Grace, Sarah Davidson is warm, sweet and caring, while Austin Delp and Jessie Jo Pauley are energetic and fun as Hannigan's brother Rooster and his dimwitted girlfriend Lily. Their performance, with Richards, of "Easy Street" is a playful and animated highlight. The entire ensemble is solid, with Nathan Spector warm and charming as Warbucks' butler Drake and Randal Haun and Raymond Barcelo providing pops of humor as President Roosevelt and Bert Healy. Also, the six young girls who play the orphans, Baylee Horvath, Mia McFarland, Olivia Woodward-Shaw, Maddie Sue Miller, Savannah Decker and Paige Erdmann, deliver winning and realistic portrayals full of both humor and heart. Though Annie's dog Sandy is only in a few short scenes, the adorable Penny Lane steals every one she's in.
While the set design is fairly simple, Brian Daily does include some panels on the walls surrounding the audience of the New York City skyline that are reminiscent of cartoon drawings, along with some fun cartoon strip projections that begin and end some of the scenes. Mary Atkinson's costumes are sharp and full of color, and Tim Deitlein's lighting design provides some lovely stage images and works well to portray changes in the time of day.
Annie is a beloved show and a classic musical comedy. With a talented cast who solidly deliver the emotionally packed moments in the script along with an abundance of upbeat dances and fun comical scenes, Hale Centre Theatre's production is joyful, funny, refreshing, sweet and also full of hope, along with a really big heart.
Annie, through November 24, 2018, at The Hale Centre Theatre, 50 W. Page Avenue, Gilbert AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling 480-497-1181.
Directed and Choreographed by Cambrian James