Monday, May 21, 2012

Glendale Center Theatre Celebrates With ANNIE

Peter Husmann as Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks and Emma Howard
as Annie. Photos by Nathan J. Milisavljevich

At opening night of Glendale Center Theatre’s production of
ANNIE I was reminded just how much an overture prepares the audience for what it’s about to see. It sets the tone, introduces significant songs you’ll hear in the show, and in the case of ANNIE, reminds you why Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics) won a Tony Award (one of 7 the musical received in 1977) for their score. ANNIE’s overture includes three of the very best and most recognizable crowd-pleasers, “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” and “Tomorrow,” and from the way the kids in the audience bounced and swayed with every note and the adults’ faces lit up as each song was featured, the overture hasn’t lost its touch.

Glendale Center Theatre made a good choice in adding ANNIE to its 65th anniversary season. The musical will celebrate its 35th anniversary as one of America’s best-loved musical comedies with a revival on Broadway later this fall and GCT’s own leading lady, 11-year old Santa Clarita Valley resident Emma Howard was one of the 7 finalists, out of a staggering 5000, in the running to play the title role. It’s not hard to see why. She’s a vibrant singer who can belt out a showtune without pretention and her earnest performance is full of genuine charm.

In truth, this musical belongs to the kids, and no matter what else happens, if you find the right set of orphans and redheaded ringleader, their energetic exuberance will do most of the work for you. In the case of director Michael Sterling’s youthful casting, he’s hit a home run. They are Asia Aragon (Pepper), Bella Briscoe (Duffy), Lucy Taylor (July), Katherine Marie West (Tessie), Brooke Lynn Boyd (Kate), and Leah Schraff as the littlest orphan, Molly. The feisty personalities of the girls combined with their well-tuned bright voices (musical director Steven Applegate shows them off well) will make sure you’re always fully dressed with a smile yourself. “Hard Knock Life” is especially sassy and fun as Jerry Evans puts the girls through his enthusiastic bucket and broom choreography and his staging for the ensemble’s “NYC” is also fast-paced and creative.

Miss Hannigan (Dynell Leigh), Rooster (Clayton Ferris),
  and Lily St. Regis (Christa Hamilton)

Both Evans’ choreography and Sterling’s direction play well in GCT’s theatre in the round. The efficient scene changes are smooth extensions of the action, with
Tim Deitlein’s lighting subtly directing your attention to precise locations that disguise the changeovers. 
Costume choices by Angela Wood & Glendale Costumes are excellent.

Thomas Meehan’s book, which also won a Tony Award, still holds up as an example of great musical theatre writing today as well. GCT’s actors have the benefit of a solidly constructed story, jokes that land no matter what, and characters whose intentions are well-defined, though I was less enamored with some of the adult performances. Peter Husmann, who made an exceptional John Adams in GCT’s 1776 is over-the-top here with an affected vocal mannerism that doesn’t feel authentic, and his two leading ladies, Dynell Leigh as the villainous Miss Hannigan and Heather Dudenbostel as the effusively perky Grace Farrell, play the obvious rather than explore a deeper interpretation of their characters. Conversely, Don Woodruff’s Franklin D. Roosevelt is a comforting presence with his steady grounded portrayal of the Depression-era President.

Peter Husmann, Emma Howard and Heather Dudenbostel (Grace Farrell)
Photo credit: Deborah Dubin

is at its very best when its orphans fearlessly break into their song and dance. Whether they’re wistfully singing “Maybe” from their room at the orphanage or comically imitating the Boylan Sisters on the radio, they are the reason we come back again and again for another dose of that bet-your-bottom-dollar sunshine. Bring the whole family and join in the celebration of this totally G-rated musical comedy classic.

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