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Having attended community theatre events in the past, and being new to the area (having returned to Rowan County only in mid-May after a 26-year absence), I was prepared for Amateur Night at the Follies. Much to my surprise, the Davidson Community Players are really worth seeing, approaching professional quality in some production aspects, and with some of the actors and singers. For those, like myself, not familiar with DCP, the 52-year-old organization involves some 400 to 500 volunteers, making it a major operation indeed. They also use the Armour Street Theatre, a smaller venue, and a 3,300 square-foot space in Cornelius for rehearsals. With these resources and with attendance of some 15,000 per season, they can present shows about as polished as possible with amateur performers.
It takes a lot of people to put on Annie the Musical, even with many of the actors taking on multiple parts. This is by its nature, and necessity, a family-oriented show, welcome in this age of casual crudity. Note that the creators of this musical, Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse, and Martin Charnin, created the story and characters almost out of whole cloth, with little resemblance to the comic strip. In fact, the political content of the strip was a defense of Hooverism and a paean to unrestrained capitalism. Comic creator Harold Gray did very well for himself financially through the Depression, penning a dark comic full of the sufferings of the poor and dispossessed.
To make a cheerful and upbeat musical in the far more liberal mid-70s, and to do well in the environment of Broadway, the story had to be changed. Warbucks is now modeled more closely on Cecil Rhodes than J. P. Morgan. In this new version, he is a lifelong bachelor, yearning for love and meaning in his life after years preoccupied with gathering wealth, but without much interest in finding a wife. He wanted a boy orphan to try out for a couple of weeks, but his secretary brought a girl instead, much to his dismay. While he has distaste for FDR, the president ends up being a guest at Warbucks' mansion for Christmas, and helping the effort to find Annie's birth parents.
The orphans have to deal with a cruel taskmistress, Miss Hannigan (a different name than in the strip), but they seem to cope well, getting away with all kinds of mischief, and all end up at Warbucks' home for the holidays. As a result, the edge of the strip is lost in translation, and the finale more than verges on treacle. The strip has not been published widely for decades, so modern audiences will know Annie both from parody and this musical, which was first produced in 1977. This disconnect in the popular mind from the original and now dated strip probably helped in gaining Annie the Musical its great success.
The opening overture was performed by the pit musicians, who lined up at the very back of the stage. The overall sound quality was harsh and totally dominated by the brass and drums. The usual result in such arrangements is that you know the strings are playing because you see the bows moving, and not from actually hearing any sound from them. That was much the case this evening. Sorry to say that the orchestra was the weak link in an otherwise strong production. The musical score itself has one big tune ("Tomorrow"); there are many constraints to having large numbers of children singers, and in general the music is simplistic and pretty much standard Broadway fare of its time. In no way does the music reflect the 1930s.
The first scene was in the orphanage, and the young actors, mostly in elementary school, pulled off a convincing performance from the start. They obviously had done a great deal of work under able direction. Gracie Bryant, who played Annie, was cute as a button and certainly looked the part. Gracie's singing was a touch thin, but did the job, and her stage presence was excellent. This is a challenging part to say the least, and one that many in the audience will know from professional productions.
Miss Hannigan was played by Della Knowles to the maximum extent of the law, and a touch beyond. The audience ate it up as she was constantly sucking on a liquor bottle and making passes at anything in pants. She was infuriated when Warbucks' secretary, Grace, played by Amy McKay, showed up at the orphanage to take Annie away for two weeks – quite inexplicably, in one of the script's large plot holes. Annie is introduced to the Warbucks mansion and wait staff, and then to the imperious Oliver Warbucks himself (played by a very tall, very bald Scott W. Curtis).
There follows a street scene with the ensemble, featuring the finest voice of the evening, Christie Wolf. Christie is a native of northern New York and has studied at Eastman School of Music. This showed, as she had real operatic quality of projection and excellent acting skills. She had multiple roles throughout the evening, but this street scene gave her a chance at a real solo shot. Keep your eyes peeled for this extraordinary talent.
There follows an appeal by Warbucks over the radio to find Annie's parents, with a $50,000 reward, followed by hucksters trying to cash in. Oliver and Annie go to Washington, DC and meet with FDR and the cabinet, where Annie's upbeat manner help to pull the country out of its despair (an amazing break from the comic strip). All end up for Christmas at the Warbucks mansion, with the orphans included; the bad guys get arrested by the Secret Service and hauled off to the pokey, and all is right with the world. Everybody sings about Tomorrow, even though the tomorrows facing the world in 1933 would be nothing to sing merrily about for a good, say, twenty years. (That's when Stalin finally died.)
The audience for this opening night certainly approved, with every seat taken and a rousing and enthusiastic standing ovation.
Annie continues through Sunday, July 2. Fore more details on this production, please view the sidebar.