“Annie” is a joy.
Annie is a Joy.
That second sentence is not redundant.
“Annie” — a musical so sweet and sentimental that experiencing a good rendition of it can be like injecting liquid candy corn directly into your veins — gets a crisp and loving new production by Good Company Players. Director Emily Pessano knows when to turn on the charm at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater and when to steer clear of cuteness overload. Heartfelt, amusing and with just the right touch of acerbic crackle, this “Annie” feels accomplished and fresh.
As for Annie the 11-year-old red-haired orphan, that plucky Broadway symbol of indefatigable optimism, let me introduce you to Joy.
Joy Smith, that is. Most Annies alternate the demanding role — on Broadway they had three, and that doesn’t count understudies — but Joy handles the task by herself, thank you very much. From the moment I heard her deliver a pert and satisfying “Maybe,” the plaintive anthem of orphans everywhere, I found myself captivated by this Junior Company veteran.
She more than holds her own among the experienced veterans in the GCP cast, including Laurie Pessano as a crisp Grace Ferrell, Julie Lucido as a sloshed Miss Hannigan and Nicholas Nunez as a memorable Rooster.
Joy also fits in nicely with her fellow orphans, who are double-cast. (At the opening-weekend performance I attended, the perky group consisted of Madi McFarland as Pepper, Morgan Sanders as Molly, Kailyn Sanders as Kate, Lillian Gainer as Tessie, Anna Smith as July, Quynh-Thy as Duffy, Arianna Figueroa as Ruby and Rachel Elensky as Hazel.) These girls sounded great, displayed impressive acting chops and were strongly in character every moment on stage. I loved the sense of ensemble.
Still, the most important key to a great “Annie” is a strong chemistry between Annie and the grumpy Oliver Warbucks, the billionaire who falls under her cheerful spell. Eric Estep gives the best Warbucks performance I’ve seen from him. (And it wasn’t exactly my first time to experience him in the role.) He and young Joy have a great father-daughter rapport. It’s fun to see them just so happy on stage.
In terms of the creative team, David Pierce’s standout scenic design nicely transitions between the rundown orphanage and the opulence of Warbucks’ Fifth Avenue mansion.
Roger Christensen, as a buoyant F.D.R, and Shawn Williams, as the bubbly radio-show host Bert Healy, are among the strong performers in the ensemble. And Morgan Sanders, as the youngest orphan, Molly, stole the audience’s heart (as she should).
One aspect of the production felt a little flat. The choreography (by Emily Pessano and Jessica Sarkisian) sometimes was lackluster and uninspired, especially in the adult ensemble numbers. The upbeat and bouncy “Hooverville,” in particular, just didn’t have any edge to it. (Then again, the music and lyrics of the song itself have always seemed far too sanguine for the subject matter.) I didn’t care for the high kicks in “Easy Street” (an otherwise strong number). And the household staff moves in “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” and the street dancers in “N.Y.C.” likewise felt on the blah side.
But for me, that is the only major negative in a smart and happy production. And it doesn’t diminish in the least from the performance of the central character.
Past Annies in GCP productions have gone on to great things on Broadway and beyond. (Heidi Blickenstaff played the role.) I think that Joy Smith has that potential. She has that certain spark on stage that suggests big things to come. Her comic timing, emotional range and, yes, belt-it-to-Bakersfield voice all come together in a potent package. Who knows what her “Tomorrow” will bring?
“Annie,” through March 18, Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave., Fresno. Tickets range from $32-$60 depending on dinner packages.
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