Covedale’s “Annie” is a Great Present for Christmas

Review by Doug Iden of Annie: Covedale Theatre

The perennial holiday favorite Annie opened triumphantly at the Covedale Theatre as part of the Cincinnati Landmark Productions Marquee Season.  This unabashedly optimistic and up-lifting musical (some might say corny) tells the story of an eleven year old girl stuck in a prison-like orphanage while desperately trying to find her parents during the 1933 Depression.  Based upon the newspaper cartoon Little Orphan Annie, we see a plucky girl aided by her fellow orphans trying to cope with the difficult and dreary life of the orphanage, run by the drunken and tyrannical Miss Hannigan, played deliciously by Helen Raymond-Goers.

The show opens with Annie (Jordan Darnell) in the dilapidated orphanage singing the plaintive soliloquy “Maybe” in which she dreams of a better life.  Immediately, we are introduced to Miss Hannigan and the brood of fellow orphans (Savannah Boyd, Nora Darnell, Megan Hirka, Maya Hunt, Esther Medlin, Sara Reynolds and Aine Steele) who sing about their abusive life in “It’s the Hard Knock Life”.  All of the orphans are young, exuberant, charismatic and talented.

Annie escapes the orphanage and is quickly absorbed into the homeless and unemployed citizenry of the early Depression era.  Her optimism shines through in the hit song “Tomorrow” which Darnell sings with poise and strength.  Not many musicals rely on the star power of a youngster but the spunky Annie is key to the show and Darnell acts and sings the role well.

We see the real character of Miss Hannigan as she drunkenly complains about her life while disparaging her charges in the hilarious song “Little Girls”.  This role is one of the great comic villainesses and Raymond-Goers plays her in a wonderfully outrageous manner.

Their salvation comes at the hands of Grace (Sarah Viola), the personal assistant to billionaire Daddy Warbucks (Justin Glaser) who is looking for an orphan whom Warbucks hosts for Christmas.  Grace’s selection of a girl, Annie, is a shock to Warbucks but he quickly warms to Annie’s gritty personality.  They celebrate with the big production number “N.Y.C.”, as Annie, Grace and Warbucks cavort through the streets of the “Big Apple”.

In a radio program, Warbucks appeals to the public to find Annie’s parents and offers a substantial reward.  Predictably, many wannabes claim the reward but are unsuccessful.

In one of the more delightful moments in the show, Miss Hannigan, her brother Rooster (Spenser Smith) and his girlfriend Lily St. Regis (Leslie Kelly) plot to con Warbucks by pretending to be Annie’s long-lost parents.  In their ecstasy, they dream of wealth while singing the raucous “Easy Street”.

Justin Glaser is believable as industry titan Warbucks with a good baritone voice as he explains his growing attraction to Annie, the child he never had, through the mournful “Something was Missing”.

Annie is often dismissed as a sentimental “kid’s show” but there are significant adult themes here including yearning for family, friendship, loyalty, perseverance and an unwillingness to accept life’s curves.  It also serves as both political and social commentary on the devastation that the Depression brought to many people.  There are a significant number of topical 1930’s references to performers, politicians, Supreme Court Judges and an extended role for President Franklin Roosevelt, played by Dave Wilson.  The score is by Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics) who are renowned for writing tuneful, bright and theatrically integrated songs with witty lyrics.

The singing of the ensemble is good and the dancing simple but effective while playing a variety of roles including, homeless people, regular New Yorkers, Warbuck’s servants, Cabinet members etc.  Music Director Steve Goers led his band of seven well at just the right volume level.

Brett Bowling continues to intrigue with effective and efficient set designs, using swinging doors and rollaway props to create different scenes.  The overall effect is a colorful, Christmas-themed set with a hint of surrealism.  Doors in the set open to display other scenes including a radio studio, Warbuck’s luxurious apartment, the streets of New York and FDR’s office.  The orphanage is depicted by rollaway bunk beds and a shabby office for Miss Hannigan.  The orphanage is dilapidated with plaster crumbling showing bricks underneath.  The effects are accentuated by Caren Brady’s costumes which range from rags for the orphans, to immaculate servant’s uniforms, to homeless vagrants, to passers-by on the street, to a zoot suit for Rooster to red and green dresses for the orphans in the finale.  Props also play a big part with the radio studio, musical instruments, carriages and a Christmas tree with lots of greenery.  The lighting was mostly effective but some of the spotlights seemed out of sync with the actor’s locations.

Overall, this is a fun-filled, jubilant, colorful show with good singing and a lot of spirit – a good holiday show.  So, since “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile”, don’t wait until “Tomorrow” to stroll down “Easy Street” (or the Covedale Theater) to watch Annie running through December 23.  Their next production will be Guys and Dolls.

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