(Photo Courtesy: Sharyn Sakimoto)
Written by Alina Mae Wilson
Ladies and gentlemen, she’s back. The girl with the curly red hair, the sandy-colored dog, the steadfast optimism and the voice of gold–Annie. Annie has returned to us, this time for one week over at Peppertree Park in Tustin. Her mission, to spread courage and good cheer while entertaining families in an outdoor setting late at night. Does she succeed? In spite of sound issues and rushed pacing, I would say its close enough.
It’s Christmas time, but Little Orphan Annie isn’t thinking of gifts. This tough little redhead desperately wants to reunite with her parents, who left her as a baby on the doorstep of an orphanage in New York City. After befriending a stray dog and wriggling her way into the house of billionaire Oliver Warbucks, Annie realizes she just might escape the drudgery of orphanage life and find a loving home after all.
Peppertree Park is, in actuality, a park. It is outside. And, coincidentally, it is pretty close to John Wayne airport, so be prepared to hear some airplanes coming in for landing ever so often. I have seen many Broadway in the Park productions here, and the actors generally power through without trouble. Annie was no different. The airplanes come, go, and each scene proceeds as intended. What turned out to be a bit more frustrating for me were the various sound issues heard throughout the show–microphones cutting in and out, frequency issues, stuff like that. HOWEVER, I would be remiss to not point out that I watched the final dress rehearsal–perhaps they have smoothed out the sound issues by now. I hope so, because the singers all clearly know what they are doing and deserve to be heard. Annie herself is played by Broadway veteran Maya Grace Fischbein. Fischbein’s voice is pretty and controlled, resulting in a sound that is sweeter than the blasting belt many people associate with songs such as “Tomorrow,” the iconic anthem of hope and optimism. Annie’s nemeses are the child-hating Miss Hannigan, Miss Hannigan’s con-artist brother Rooster, and his girlfriend Lily St. Regis. They are played respectively by Karla Franko, Winston Peacock, and Dayna Sauble. Their rendition of “Easy Street” is the best I have ever heard or seen. “Easy Street” was never my favorite number from this show…until last night. Franko, Peacock and Sauble have terrific chemistry with one another as they gyrate and bobble all over the stage, making dastardly plans and letting their wildly different personalities visible in every moment.
The orphans have always been a fun part of Annie’s story. While they were plenty entertaining to watch because their pep and their zeal, the orphans in this production tended to meld into one entity instead of being allowed to showcase themselves as distinctive characters. Personally I have always enjoyed watching them display their quirks and interactions, so this disappointed me a little. However, the fact that they’ve all joined together as one helps us better understand Miss Hannigan’s irritation during her anthem of hate –“Little Girls.” Watching her gaze into a seething mass of mini-humanity helped me get her point of view.
Visually everything is great. I was particularly charmed by Mr. Warbuck’s mansion, which is large, homey, and eminently cheery looking with wooden walls and a Christmas decorations. The orphanage is sufficiently dreary, and the costumes are beyond reproach.
The hardest thing for me to come to terms with is the pacing. While I realize that the show is running late at night, much of the first act felt rushed and not just because of the children. If the performers were directed to wait half a beat more for some lines, I am convinced they could have taken those half beats and put some acting into it instead of racing through the dialogue and feeling pressure to end the scenes.
As the title character Fischbein is quietly optimistic rather than abrasive and shrill. She gives the character some very sweet moments. The villainous Miss Hannigan is funny instead of frightening. With her diminutive stature and screechy little voice, Franko’s Miss Hannigan comes off as something of a hysterical substitute teacher rather than abusive–but hey, it’s funny.