A mixed ‘Annie’ at CMT, but still lots of heart
With an all-ages cast, the Children’s Musical Theaterworks production of “Annie” is a hybrid of community theater and children’s theater. I don’t truly “review” children’s theater, at least in terms of finding areas of improvement needed with individual performances, but I do offer my opinions on community theater. So the review that follows is also a hybrid that blends my approaches to community and children’s productions: I offer five aspects of the show I find really strong; and a couple of areas that could use some improvement.
Overall, this “Annie” is not as accomplished as other CMT productions of the same title I’ve seen in the past. And it doesn’t reach the heights of some other CMT community theater productions. But there’s still a lot to like about the show:
1. Dan Aldape and Kellerie Aldape as a sassy and commanding Rooster and Lily, the con artists who skulk their way into the storyline by claiming Annie as their own daughter in order to make off with the reward money offered by Daddy Warbucks. (That they also insinuate the murder of Annie after getting away with the scam is the one truly chilling aspect of this feel-good musical.) Both Aldapes offer gems of performances, with the song “Easy Street” — joined by an amusingly muddled Biz Fiester as Miss Hannigan — one of the musical highlights.
2. The sweet relationship between Daddy Warbucks (a sturdy Eric Estep) and Annie (an accomplished Elizabeth Burbidge in the performance I saw; she alternates the role with Samantha Shaheen-Smith). My favorite moment between them: the song “Something Was Missing,” which is tender and sentimental without being soppy. Both Estep and Burbidge offer impressive vocals and nice acting.
3. Vonia Villanueva as the perky orphan Molly. (She alternates the role with Macayla Sevilla.) She belts out her famed line “You’ll stay up till this dump shines like the top of the Chrysler building!” like a pro.
4. Chase Stubblefield as Bert Healy, the “Hour of Smiles” radio host. I’ve often thought that Stubblefield, a 2nd Space Theatre staple, has a sonorous speaking voice, and here he gets to strut his vocal stuff.
5. Jeff Dinmore as President Roosevelt. Amiable and gently feisty, Dinmore’s F.D.R. is a treat. As a kid listening to the cast album, one of my favorite parts was when F.D.R. orders his Cabinet to sing “Tomorrow” in a capella harmony. Talk about executive privilege.
Areas that could use improvement:
1. Christi Allen’s choreography. The production is notably subdued in this area, especially the adult ensemble numbers such as “NYC” and “I Think I’m Going to Like It Here,” which remain mostly inert. Better to have a small group of dancers and have the rest of the ensemble remain immobile than try to get by with a lot of hand waving. And even the steps done by the orphans aren’t very challenging.
2. Karan Johnson’s direction. I’ve seen sparkling work by Johnson before, but this production just doesn’t come together with the confidence and precision I’d expect. Again, the adult ensemble numbers need more spark, some scene changes were labored, and even the curtain call felt a little flat at the matinee performance I attended. Veteran actors such as Katie Lewis, as Grace, seem a little lost and ineffective in their roles, particularly during those ensemble numbers.
3. Dan Aldape’s sound design. Leading actors are miked, but ensemble members with individual lines or solos aren’t, and this creates a clunky effect. (I’m assuming this is also a resources issue.)
Still, it’s hard to go completely wrong with such great music and material. There’s spirit and dedication in abundance in the production. When Annie sings “Tomorrow,” it’s one of those moments that can melt the heart of the most stoic theatergoer. A lot of hard work and effort went into this “Annie,” and it shows.
“Annie,” 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10, Fresno Veterans Memorial Auditorium, 2425 Fresno St. Tickets are $14-$22 general, $10 children 12 and under.
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