Hard-knock life of 'Annie' draws holiday crowds at Colonial Players

Performers of all ages spread play's message of optimism

  • From left, Kaelynn Miller (Grace), Daphne EcKman (Annie) and Tim Sayles (Daddy Warbucks) make a radio plea in Annie, continuing through Dec. 8 at the Colonial Players in Annapolis. Behind are The Boylan Sisters, played by Lisa Rodvien, Natalie Nankervis and Tami Howie.
From left, Kaelynn Miller (Grace), Daphne EcKman (Annie) and… (Photo by Colburne Images )
November 26, 2013|By Mary Johnson, For The Baltimore Sun

How successful is Colonial Players' current production of "Annie?" Well, after the first weekend, available seats for this heart-warming family-friendly show were all but sold out — including a recently added matinee performance on Sunday, Dec. 8.

All was not lost, though. Colonial Players noted that some standby seats were available, and the troupe's website noted that "we are very frequently able to seat several standby ticket holders for each performance."

Sold-out shows are rare in community theater, so why is this show — which opened 36 years ago on Broadway and has been seen numerous times by many of us — a 2013 sellout in Annapolis?

Simply put, it's a great show. "Annie" won the 1977 Tony Award for best musical, telling the story of a spunky orphan through timeless music by Charles Strouse and bright lyrics by Martin Charnin. It ran for nearly six years on Broadway and in countless productions nationally and abroad.

The musical is based on the long-running "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip, published from 1924 until 2010, written for 44 years by originator Harold Gray. The tale of an optimistic orphan's belief in a better tomorrow still resonates with families, from great-grandparents who remember the dark 1930s Depression days to children and their parents dealing with today's challenges.

Colonial Players' production is a major hit because it features a multi-talented crew of "orphans," led by an amazing Annie. Much of the credit is also due to its veteran director, Joe Thompson, who immediately confesses in his director's notes that, "Golly, I love this play. It has everything: a plucky young heroine, catchy songs, dastardly villains, a dog and a whole lot of love."

Thompson recognizes and enhances what "Annie" gains by Colonial's intimate, in-the-round space. Annie and her fellow orphans are so close we feel we know them and the entire cast of players, from mean Miss Hannigan to her sleazy brother Rooster to workaholic billionaire Oliver Warbucks.

The director is ably assisted by music director Roger Compton, who adds zest to the familiar score, especially in drawing phenomenal performances from the ensemble of orphans. They become a strong chorus delivering "Hard-Knock Life," rhythmically punctuated by their slamming buckets on the floor as they scrub. Compton also coaches thoughtful delivery of lyrics from adult players — notably in Warbucks' "NYC" — and the adult chorus delivering dark political humor in "Hooverville."

Set designer Edd Miller creates a drab orphanage and subdued elegance in Warbucks' mansion rooms. Costume designer Carol Youmans creates a diverse assortment of costumes for Annie — from plain generic orphan clothes to suitable mansion garb. Costumes for secretary Grace Farrell are elegantly understated, as are Warbucks' business suits.

Choreographer Natasha Joyce creates dances utilizing Colonial's entire in-the-round space, working well for Miss Hannigan's orphanage in "Hard-Knock Life" and for impoverished "Hooverville" residents in their number.

This show's brightest star is Daphne Eckman, who is everything Annie should be, striking all the right notes in her spirited singing to bring a new sense of longing to the song, "Maybe," and bright optimism to her "Tomorrow." It's a song that makes an audience smile in anticipation of the holiday season ahead.

Among the adult characters, Rebecca Feibel as Miss Hannigan is a stand-out, realizing the dimensionality of this survivor trapped in a job she dislikes, frequently in need of "medicine" from her flask and searching for romance on radio soap operas. Feibel shines in her sardonic-slanted solo, "Little Girls," expressing Hannigan's annoyance at the orphans surrounding her.

As Oliver Warbucks, Timothy Sayles delivers a gently understated performance while conveying the millionaire's success-driven essence, making his growing fondness for Annie surprisingly credible. He delivers a shining "I Don't Need Anything But You" in duet with Eckman's Annie.

Playing Warbucks' loyal assistant Grace Farrell, Kaelynn Miller interacts smartly with Miss Hannigan and conveys a supportive affection for Annie and for Warbucks.

Steve Mangum plays Hannigan's shabby con brother Rooster, and Maddie Poole is his girlfriend Lilly St. Regis.

A stand-out vocally, Sarah Wade reveals a star-caliber voice in her singing of "NYC" as the character, Star-to-Be. Her selection illustrates Colonial Players' inspired casting.

Many others qualify as "stars-to-be" — namely the two groups cast as orphans, who alternate at different performances. When I attended, these orphans were Anne Grace Keller as Duffy, Rachel Kalafos as July, Georgia Eckman as Kate, Vivien Kaplan as Molly, Annalie Ellis as Pepper and Sarah Kalafos as Tessie — all adorable and already polished professionals in their delivery.

An added bonus – playing dog Sandy is well-trained, wonderful Watson, a rescue dog that adopted by Christie Richardson. In addition to his role in "Annie," Watson is also known to visit local nursing homes and hospitals.

To brighten your holiday season, try finding a stand-by ticket to "Annie," on stage through Dec. 8 at Colonial Players, 108 East St., Annapolis. For details, call the box office at 410-268-7373.

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