Annie, book by Thomas Meehan, lyrics by Martin Charnin, music by Charles Strouse. Directed by John Saunders.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Monica M. Wemitt with her two Annies, Maisie Rugen and Jamie Burton; photo supplied
"We loooooove you, Miss Hannigan"
There is the anticipated moment in many musicals when the heartstrings come under attack and are undone by the very sentimental experience we’ve all been waiting for all along. In "Annie," there are several of these precipitated by several plot-points. When Annie breaks through the hard, Republican shell of Oliver Warbucks there is one. When Warbucks agrees to find Annie’s long-lost parents for her there is another. When Annie’s orphaned state becomes real is a third. In the new production of the musical at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York all three moments, and a few more as well, are telling, tugging away at the human emotional condition. They are pretty much guaranteed, of course. Even the worst grammar school production would give those scenes their due.
What comes as a pleasant, not to say shocking, surprise is the degree to which this production has been set on its course by a director who knows his form and his players and by the players themselves. Some very talented kids grace the stage in the round in this venue. Two supporting players, in particular, stand out and they should be mentioned early so they can get to bed: Emily Spateholts as Pepper and Belle Babcock as Molly, the littlest orphan, turn in remarkably wonderful performances, ones that truly touch the pressure points of pleasure. The other kids are excellent but these two do stand out. Of course, they are written to do just that - after all orphans are often on show to attract new homes and new parents - but in this show there is a talent exposed in each child and in the group seen on Friday night each has a chance to shine.
Jamie Burton who played Annie was superb. Her acting was sharp and character driven and her singing and dancing were amusing and entertaining. Outside, during the intermission, a gentleman was discussing the other Annie, Maisie Rugen, comparing her to Friday night’s Burton and he was of the opinion that Rugen was just as good if not better. It sounds as though you can’t miss no matter which Annie you get to see.
In the role of Daddy Warbucks the production has the tall and handsome Don Circle, Jr. He embodies the macho of the role and his growing affection for the red-headed house guest who is Annie was visible at every turn. Alison Drew did a lovely job as Warbucks’ secretary Grace Farrell, singing sweetly and smiling manically. Monk Schane-Lydon played Drake, the butler with charm and grace, adding this calm and patient realization to his growing list of character roles in musicals.
Carl Hulden was an excellent Rooster, adding a nice realization to his chances of emerging as "growing star number one" at the theater. Victoria Broadhurst does extremely well with the role of Lily St. Regis. Ralph Ambrosio is very, very good indeed in the role of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Still it wouldn’t matter how good the supporting players were without an excellent portrayal of the villain of the piece, Miss Hannigan. Here the company is very lucky to have in the cast Monica M. Wemitt. I have had the good luck to have seen every Broadway Hannigan, including hilarious comic Dorothy Loudon, creepily eerie Alice Ghostley, mercilessly manic Betty Hutton, archly evil Ruth Kobart, seriously dangerous Marcia Lewis, swankily haunting Dolores Wilson, and impatiently patronizing Nell Carter. I have seen the musical debut of Marian Seldes in the short-lived Annie Two as she played a spinsterly spacy Hanigan. Wemitt is none of the above. Her Hannigan is a tortured transient, a nauseous, noxious knave, a wasted woman who won’t waver in her woe. She brings so many wonderfully weird traits to the character that we might ask for the title of the show to be changed to "Annie and Miss Hannigan." Thankfully the company around her is strong and good for this keeps her role in perspective and yet her playing is what keeps the show motivated and alive. Her solo, Little Girls, is both a comic statement of discontent and a dramatic rendition of minor madness. When the children say "I love you, Miss Hannigan," we almost want to say it along with them, and to mean it.
Saunders handles his large cast well and the stage pictures are nice and clean and visually presentable. His personal relationship with Wemitt has worked wonders in this show which was a relief. He is ably supported by his designers including Andrew Gmoser whose lighting is right on and Jimm Halliday whose costumes give the characters their individuality and reality.
I don’t usually jump up and down with excitement about a musical like "Annie" but this one has so much to offer that I find myself doing just that. See it if you can.
Annie plays at the Mac-Haydn Theater on Route 203 north of Chatham, NY through June 19. For information and tickets contact the box office at 518-392-9292.