For many in this country today, it’s a hard-knock life. The parallels between the musical “Annie,” set in the depths of the Depression, and our current economic situation are among the more poignant themes articulated in the new Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of the classic show. Hearing a big-lunged girl belting about the sun coming out “Tomorrow” is always a crowd-pleaser, but in this case, it takes on even more meaning. (The play continues through Dec. 18 at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium.)
I liked this production, but in terms of my expecations for community theater, it has some weaknesses. (I have a higher standard for CMT’s all-ages shows than its usual youth productions, which feature cast members ages 20 and younger.) There are some fine acting and vocal performances, spiffy sets, nice costumes and a very cute dog playing Sandy. A lot of hard work went into this production, and it shows. But the direction, choreography and lighting design is uneven.
Bee photo / John Walker
On the positive side, the cast features talented veterans and newcomers. Two Esteps, married in real life, are standouts: the finely voiced Shannah as a blowsy Miss Hannigan, adept at all the cackling eccentricities and crusty comic asides that makes the character such a classic; and Eric, beautifully voiced, who gives us a booming, tough-but-softie Daddy Warbucks.
I saw the “Empire” cast perform, with Madison Allen in the leading role of Annie, and she offered a fine performance, walloping us with a plucky stage presence. (The role, along with the orphans, is double cast; Emily Estep alternates in the part.) Daniel Hernandez’s Rooster and Kylie Briggs’ Lily St. Regis were nicely played. And Cheyenne Gray (as the Star to Be) offered some vocal stardom.
The acting in the production is one of director Leslie Mitts-Martin’s strengths, particularly in the characterizations of supporting characters in the show. From the plucky orphans to the stalwart inhabitants of Hooverville, there’s a sense among most of the ensemble cast members of making choices that are fully within the moment. Sure, it’s the major roles that get the big lines and solos, but without a fully committed ensemble, a show like this can seem foundationless. That doesn’t happen here.
The directorial weaknesses, however, have to do with the complicated logistics of making a musical seem effortless: the transitions between scenes and between dialogue and songs, the staging of musical numbers, the general crispness and visual sparkle of the presentation. (Examples: On opening night, the moments leading up to “Tomorrow,” with Annie making a beeline to center stage to reach her mark, seemed rushed and perfunctory. And the Star to Be’s big moment in the number “N.Y.C.” lacked a sense of excitement.)
Most of all, I couldn’t latch on to what Mitts-Martin was trying to achieve through her direction and production design in terms of tone: Is it a darker commentary on social inequity? Or a perky, brightly comic-book-style blast of optimism? The inability to bridge these two visions seems a key weakness.
It doesn’t help that Mitts-Martin and her cast is saddled with a mediocre recorded score that doesn’t come close to matching the instrumentation and vitality of an orchestra or even a good solo piano. The heavily synthesized organ-like sound has a strange, oom-pah-like, bouncy feel, muffled and inarticulate, making it hard for singers to find the downbeat and diminishing the impact of many of the songs.
Madi Spate and Nicki Lack’s lighting design sometimes fails at the most basic level of keeping the characters on stage adequately illuminated. I suspect that some of this comes back to directorial vision. But if you’re going to make the creative decision to have murky lighting, it has to be done in an intense and stylized way in order for it not to seem a mistake. (I also had follow-spot issues: The practice of snapping it on a performer at the first lyric of a musical number — but not before — is jarring and unseemly. And often it seemed that the follow-spot was not being utilized to highlight major characters on stage during key scenes of dialogue; if you’ve got it, why not use it?)
Ruth Griffin’s choreography often veers sharply from standard musical-theater fare. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I found the choreography for the orphans’ big number, “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” to be so completely endearing that I had a grin throughout, appropriately enough. The orphans at times actually hop to the music, giddily interacting with their comrades, relating to each other instead of being lost in choreographed precision. It’s charming to watch them get to act like real little girls rather than highly trained dancers — something you don’t usually get to see in the highly stylized genre of musical theater.
But at other times I wanted more Broadway-style technique and pizzazz, particularly in the ensemble numbers performed by Oliver Warbucks’ staff. And in “Easy Street,” some of the choreography just doesn’t work, with Hernandez in particular giving us awkward movements of rubbery abstraction rather than convincing swagger.
Still, there are moments of stage magic. When President Roosevelt (an amiable Bob Whalen) barks at his Cabinet to join in on the reprise of “Tomorrow,” it’s hard not to be moved — no matter your political persuasion. While I might sound a little Grinchlike about this production, I salute the dedication and optimism of all involved.