Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
It has been a long time since I saw this musical, one that I like more than many of my theater friends, who are mostly allergic to it. It has a terrific score with half a dozen potential showstoppers ("Tomorrow," "Little Girls," "NYC,"You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," and "I Don't Need Anything But You") and several other songs that are darned good. The story is well structured and Thomas Meehan's book finely crafted. For me, the key to a really successful production is not to play it broad, allow the real emotionalism written into the musical to come out. This helps to make sure the saccharine factor is not overwhelming as we cruise toward the happy ever after ending, so audiences can be really moved.
Unfortunately, this production falls into all the usual traps, and for more experienced theatergoers falls short, although it would be hard to judge that based on the enthusiastic reactions of all the youngsters and most of their parents in attendance at the matinee I attended. That performance was plagued by some dicey singing, spread across most of the cast, perhaps from fatigue brought on by the additional demands of the holiday season.
All of the children (and Sandy) are double cast. I saw the red cast, headed by Julianne Teague as Annie. She is adorable, sings decently, and all in all acquits herself nicely. The orphans, Catherine Howard, Aubree Gunn, Cassidy "Sage" Miller, Ciana Bostock, Alitash Tafesse, Riley Bloom, Elizabeth Austin and Abbie Mount, sing and dance well, but maybe not quite ready for Broadway. Ric Stroup is stalwart as Daddy Oliver Warbucks, but was plagued with vocal insecurity at the performance I attended. I am willing to believe that it was an off show for him. Andrea Keddell plays Miss Hannigan very much for laughs, perpetually in a drunken state. Kody Ramirez gives one of the best performances on stage as Rooster with effective dancing. Eliza Lipton as Lily St. Regis completes our villainous trio. Ms. Lipton continues to grow as a performer and here she shows herself to be a marvelous comedienne and dancer. Lauren Nielsen had the strongest vocal outing as Grace Farrell and is really cute in the part. Other good performances in supporting parts include Bradley Keville as Bert Healey, Mark Eichorn as Drake, and Joe Eckstein as FDR. The rest of the large cast do double and triple duty as Warbucks' staff, residents of Hooverville, denizens of New York, FDR's cabinet, etc.
It is hard to assess what went wrong; did the cast lack focus due to other holiday distractions or is director Cheryl Carty at fault? Cynthia Ashford's choreography is lively and reasonably well executed, and the energy level on stage is high. Music direction is by Michelle Neal and her uncredited brass players do well by the opening of the overture, which always gives me goosebumps. Scenic design is by Caleb Carrier and Daddy Warbucks' home is wow! Costume design by Georgina Willmott is also very strong, and Patrick Bedell's lighting design is effective.
In spite of my reservations, based on audience reaction at the performance I attended, Annie seems to be delighting audiences, young and old alike at Manatee Performing Arts Center this Christmas season.
Manatee Players' Annie, through December 17, 2017, at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts, 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton FL. For tickets and information, call 941-748-0111 or visit manateeplayers.com.
Alternate Cast Not Seen: