Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in 1933 during the Great Depression, the plot of the comic strip inspired musical follows the spunky, red-headed orphan Annie. She 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, by the time the musical ends, most likely every audience member as well.
With Charles Strouse's tuneful, rousing music and Martin Charnin's sharp, fun and somewhat biting lyrics, Annie features an incredibly infectious score, including the memorable numbers "Tomorrow," "It's the Hard Knock Life," "Easy Street" and "Little Girls." While the book by Thomas Meehan does have a fairly simple plot, it is nicely constructed with enough character growth, especially on the part of Warbucks, to instill a sense of love and warmth and reality into the show.
While Annie is a musical that is beloved by many, there are others who wince at the sugary sweetness of the cutesy nature of the show. Also, the score, including its breakout song "Tomorrow", does tend to border on being overly cute and cloying if you don't have a cast who are able to deliver natural, nuanced portrayals. Fortunately. Youth Valley Theatre's cast, under Cooper's excellent direction, features winning performances that are both fresh and fun and full of an enormous amount of heart.
Mia McFarland instills Annie with an infectious amount of optimism in a winning performance that is confident and upbeat. Her singing voice is bright and strong and excels in turning "Tomorrow" into a rousing anthem. As Warbucks, Bobb Cooper is simply superb. At first, we see from his portrayal that Warbucks is rigid and has no idea how to behave around a young girl like Annie. Yet once she begins to warm Warbucks' heart, Cooper's performance softens and we see the love and giant teddy bear of a man that is underneath his hardened exterior. Karol Cooper, who also designed the massive amounts of excellent costumes for the large cast, is quite good as Miss Hannigan. She has fun with playing Hannigan as the lush who seems to be always slightly intoxicated, and her good comic timing gets some big laughs. Olivia Smith is lovely as Warbucks' secretary Grace. Brandon Brown and Isabella Conner are having a blast as Hannigan's shifty brother and his girlfriend, singing with Karol Cooper a rousing "Easy Street." Also, Anand Khalsa is excellent as FDR with a fairly good accent and warmth in his line delivery. The large ensemble is very good and the group of young girls who play the orphans deliver winning and realistic portrayals that, while slightly rough around the edges, are natural, bright and fun.
Having directed this show before, and also having played Warbucks numerous times, Bobb Cooper clearly knows what is required to achieve solid performances from the cast while also ensuring the comic and emotional moments resonate. While the set for this production is a rental, Jeff Davis' lighting design is excellent and natural, which ensures the nighttime scenes are realistic while the daytime scenes are bright and optimistic. Choreographer Nathalie Velasquez delivers plenty of fun, rousing, playful and upbeat steps which are well executed by the large cast. Mark Fearey's music direction achieves an incredibly rich sound from the 24-piece orchestra.
Valley Youth Theatre's production of Annie is simply refreshing, without any trace of overly sugary moments that could threaten to sidetrack this joyful and joyous musical. It is a production that is full of hope, heart, and an abundance of humor, and a cast that deliver excellent nuanced portrayals of these originally two-dimensional cartoon characters.
The Valley Youth Theatre's Annie, through July 1st, 2018 at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased by calling 602-252-8497 or visiting www.vyt.com/home.
Book by Thomas Meehan