Today more than ever we need to be reminded how love motivates the greatest actions and intentions. Thalian Association does so with the opening of “Annie Warbucks” in Thalian Hall for the holiday season, as the show begins during Christmastime.
A follow-up to the original Broadway production and John Huston movie, “Annie,” the sequel picks up exactly where the first left off: Annie (Sydney Short) is living in a mansion and has been adopted by Oliver Warbucks (JR Rodriguez). However, New York Commissioner Harriet Doyle (Emily Graham) is making life hard on the billionaire by mandating he follow state law, which claims a man can’t adopt a child unless he is married, so the child will have a mother. With the help of Warbucks’ secretary, Grace Farrell (Katie Villecco), and his lawyer, Simon (Jim Bowling), they go on the hunt for a bride and have a mere two months or so to get Warbucks hitched. Meanwhile, Annie’s worried about sharing her daddy’s attention with another woman, and also making him endure something he doesn’t want: marriage. So she runs away to simplify life, which of course only intensifies it, as a nationwide manhunt involves top agents in Washington looking for the curly red-headed darling.
With book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin, the sequel’s setup is similar to the first “Annie,” in that we see some of the same characters from the original in similar situations. Daddy Warbucks still shows off his hard nose in business, and Rodriguez plays this well with a debonair demeanor showcasing great restraint between being stoically intimidating and a puddle of goo when Annie’s nearby. Considering Rodriguez has had 11 productions over two decades to refine the role, the natural ease he brings is expected. He makes it effortless for everyone onstage to share a scene and harmonize with him, especially in songs like “Changes” and “When You Smile.”
His match with Katie Villecco as Grace is as soothing. They both carry themselves with dignity, and Villecco wears her character’s name well in that she embodies poise and decorum. Her vocals in “Annie Just Ain’t Annie Anymore” and “It Would Have Been Wonderful” soar in their soprano range. The dialogue she shares with Warbucks at the end is quite adorable and will ignite the warm and fuzzies of even the coldest hearts.
The zing of chemistry continues to strike the stage when Warbucks’ help comes-a-calling. Ashley Grantham as the butler, Drake, and Lisa Bohbrink as head maid, Mrs. Pugh, are a smash to watch together. Their cutesy hijinks amp up some of the humdrum aspects of the storyline, and their vocals in songs like “That’s the Kind of Woman” take front and center of applause.
Our story’s villains play up the antagonistic side of the narrative most assuredly because, well, what’s a tale of Annie without someone or something threatening the little orphan? Katherine Rudeseal as Sheila Kelly is great as a humble, poor gal and potential bride from Hell’s Kitchen. She connects with Rodriguez without force—probably because their 20-something year friendship makes their interactions feel very real (fun fact: Rudeseal played Grace Farrell in Rodriguez’s first “Annie” production back in the ‘90s). It’s actually the perfect relationship to pull off a ruse, like Rudeseal’s character does, so the twist of “Annie Warbucks,” even if you know the story, feels authentic.
Emily Graham as Miss Doyle brings an interesting parallel from the show’s timeframe of the Great Depression to today’s political landscape. Basically, she shows how governmental officials can just make up rules to suit their needs as they go along. However, that she’s the first woman commissioner of NY means someone’s breaking a glass ceiling to reach the top. I vacillated on believing Graham’s interpretation mainly because the performance feels a little more bumbling than stern and forceful, as I interpreted Doyle was meant to be played. If the villain were still Miss Hannigan from the original “Annie,” Graham would be a shoe-in.
encore has a policy not to review children’s theatre, as we believe an introduction into the staged arts should be encouraging and uplifting for young minds that are still maturing and not riddled by critique. Naturally, since this is Thalian’s main stage show and, well, it’s “Annie,” we can’t review it without the most integral characters being mentioned. Sydney Short as Annie is bright eyed and fresh faced, with a voice that is quite mature for her young age. However, there’s a splashy spunk that Annie must have in order to be believable. Short brings that out most when joined by the company of the orphans. Between Lily Hawkins’ Tessie, Devon Jones’ Peaches and Elissa Hall’s Pepper, their mischief and tomfoolery highlight the show’s funnier moments. But it’s Sarah Rudeseal as Molly who manages to steal the hearts of the audience. She’s just downright adorable.
In fact, the secondary characters of “Annie Warbucks” really flesh out its most entertaining qualities. The roles of Mr. and Mrs. Paterson played by Mike Thompson and Shannon Profita, alongside their daughter C.G., played by Anna Scott Davis, are a steal in the second act. Profita’s singing voice is absolutely breathtaking—she needs to be a lead vocalist in her next production. She has the whole package in the bag, from acting chops to vocals.
The set design by Terry Collins mostly does a superb job transforming scenes, with standouts including the White House in DC and the ferry scene at the end. Although, Warbucks’ mansion seems a little off, in that it isn’t quite as opulent as one would imagine a billionaire’s home to be. Lance Howell’s costuming, with the help of Debbie Scheu, Alice Morgan Sherwood and Juli Harvey, nail the ‘30s to no avail.
Though the book is predictable and the music isn’t as catchy as the original, there are a few numbers that allow the ensemble to really shine (“Wedding, Wedding” and “All Dolled Up”) and for director Judy Greenhut’s choreography to illuminate. Overall, “Annie Warbucks” is entertaining and a great introduction to theatre for kids.