note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
Times are tough today, reminiscent of the Depression Era depicted in the multi-award winning musical, “Annie,” currentIy appearing at the Wheelock Family Theatre.
While many families can’t chase away homelessness and hunger while unemployment continues to loom, it’s uplifting to hope about tomorrow, beating a path back to Easy Street, leaving the hard knock life behind, and praying for a New Deal for Christmas. In other words, the predominating theme in “Annie” is as relevant today as it was when the comic strip and radio show appeared in the 1920s and 1930s, and Wheelock Family Theatre doesn’t miss a beat depicting the sordid parallel.
This production is more low-key than the usual big, splashy shows, and is especially poignant for smaller children; yet its theme of cruelly-run orphanages, downtrodden Hoovervilles, stray dogs, unemployment and the stock market crash doesn’t escape adult theatergoers.
Besides highlighting the action on stage, Director Jane Staab oftentimes places the large cast in the side and center aisles, near and among the audience for full effect. The set, with platforms, consists mostly of large wooden frames used to hold the girls‘ beds and separate props when the scene changes from Manhattan streets in 1933, a radio station, the orphanage, and billionaire Oliver Warbucks‘ lavish home.
The orchestra, conducted by Music Director-pianist Steve Bergman, performs from the left- and right-hand upper platforms of a wooden structure, providing the perfect amount of volume and softness required in each number.
Wheelock’s production of “Annie” also enables audiences to see a softer side of Warbucks, (nicely portrayed by Timothy John Smith), who early on shows he has a tender spot in his heart for the sunshiny 11-year-old red-haired orphan who wants more than anything else to find her real parents, while encouraging her sister orphans and providing optimism to even the president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, (Dale Place) during the country’s most depressing era.
Grace Brakeman as Annie is more low-key than the bubbly, expressive orphan we expect. “The Sun Will Come out Tomorrow, You’re only a Day Away,” she sings during a planning session at the White House, sparking stimulation and new programs to boost the economy and employment.
But Annie can’t predict that cruel orphanage director Miss Hannigan (Cheryl McMahon), her brother, “Rooster,” (John F. King), who was just released from prison, and Rooster’s girlfriend, Lily St. Regis, (Claire D. Kolheim) are plotting to collect a $50,000 reward for finding Annie’s parents, (whom the couple pretend to be), then kill Annie afterward. The trio prances around in likable number, “Easy Street”. Their plot is thwarted when Warbucks’ faithful secretary, gentle Grace Farwell ( Aimee Doherty) recognizes Rooster while he’s disguised as Annie’s longlost dad.
Second-grader Audree Hedequist as Molly, the youngest orphan, is outstanding.
This production has a few minor flaws, but overall, is a delightful afternoon -or evening - to chase the blues away, sending audiences away, singing their own hopes for tomorrow.
BOX INFO: Two-act musical; book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Chernin, appearing now through Nov, 22, at the Wheelock Family Theatre, 200 the Riverway, Boston. Performances are Friday, Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday matinees at 3. Tickets, $30,$25,$20; pajama parties, $15. Call 617-879-2300 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org.