"Annie," a piece of musical fluff by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, is a play that is endlessly performed by amateur and community theaters around the country. But the staying power of its simplistic and cartoonish message of hope and optimism, as embodied by a raffish 11-year old orphan girl during the Great Depression, is more a tribute to the show's status as a vehicle for cute child performers and second-rate character actors than any inherent strength of its theatricality. Indeed, its resurrection a few years ago in New York (some 20 years after its original Broadway run) had more to do with the hyped-up national search for the "new Annie" and the lure of easy money from tourists' pockets than any compelling artistic need for its revival.
Still, when done well, the show's adequate score and show-stopping star turns can provide a pleasant evening of family theater that, according to Jim Sturgell, the director of the Civic Theatres' new Mainstage production, can make "you laugh and cry...and touch your heart-strings." To be sure, with over-the-top comedic performances and top-notch singing (in addition to powerhouse personalities in the two main roles of Annie and Daddy Warbucks), it is possible to overlook the show's innate thinness. Sadly, the Civic's production, with all its energy and heart, just doesn't manage to propel the show out of the community-theater realm. There were few laughs from the opening night audience and, from where I sat, only dry eyes in the house.
Nine-year old Britney Caughell makes a valiant attempt as Annie, and thankfully doesn't come across as sickeningly cute. But while she does have a strong and clear singing voice, her acting skills are less mature. She simply can't convey the heartache and hope that melts an audience and endears her to all of the play's other characters. We like her, but can't understand why everyone else professes sublime adoration, especially when she spends a good deal of her time on stage visibly waiting for her cues.
As the bald-pated Daddy Warbucks, Dennis Enos is similarly likable, but nowhere does he show the rugged, hardened and icy nature that Annie is supposed to thaw. He's too soft too early, so there's no struggle to win his affection. Better suited to their respective roles are Pamela O'Bannon as the besotted orphanage mistress, Miss Hannigan, and Todd Schuck and Natalie Doliner Kuritsky as Rooster and Lily St. Regis, a pair of conniving low-lifes out to get a piece of Warbucks' fortune. The trio provides the evening's most spirited musical-comedy lift with their rousing rendition of "Easy Street."
So while "Annie" looks rich, with sumptuous costumes and a stunning set, and while it sounds good, with a spirited orchestra led by Terry Thomas, the show's inability to match those high production values with first-rate acting talent raises expectations that are regrettably unmet. It's a near miss for a much-beloved community theater that always seems to be on the verge of professionalism. But as Annie might say, there's always tomorrow.