Despite the fact that Little Orphan Annie’s comic strip ended earlier this month with our heroine kidnapped by a Balkan war criminal and held hostage indefinitely in Guatemala, Annie is alive and well in Burnsville at the Parkway Playhouse.
The Playhouse, in its 64th year, identifies itself in this year’s audition notice as “a teaching theatre that utilizes a small corps of professional actors, pre-professional college students, as well as people from the WNC community who have a passion for theatre,” placing itself squarely on a rung in between community and professional theatre. The second offering in this year’s summer season, Annie, brings a red-headed orphan on musical fire to the mountains of Western North Carolina, and strikes a balance between professionalism and good old community enthusiasm.
The musical version of Annie reached its heyday in the 1980s, when every little theatre-minded girl, including this author, were hell-bent on getting themselves into some type of Annie-fied production to satisfy the dream of belting out “Tomorrow” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed” while donning orphan garb, complete with smudged, dirty faces. Whether or not the popularity among the elementary school set of Annie persists is up for discussion, but Parkway Playhouse had no problem assembling a gigantic cast for this show, including a double cast for all the orphans and Annie for a total of 22 girls.
For those somehow unfamiliar with the premise of Annie, despite the major motion picture in the 1980s, Annie is a precocious 11-year-old orphan with a curly red mop of hair, living in a pathetic orphanage in New York City, convinced her parents will come back to claim her. The setting is the early 1930s, in the peak of the Depression, and the themes of poverty and national economic hardship are surprisingly relevant.
It is near Christmas, and the richest man in the country, Oliver Warbucks, sends his assistant to the orphanage to rustle up an orphan to spend two weeks at his Fifth Avenue mansion in an effort to appear generous. Annie is chosen, and of course Warbucks falls for her feisty adorableness in less than once scene. Warbucks eventually wants to adopt Annie, but despite the golden spoon hovering outside of her mouth, Annie’s heart wants to know if her parents are still out there.
Opening night’s Annie was a capable and strong-voiced Lindsay Salvati, the apparent winner of Yancey County Idol. Her first song, “Maybe,” was a little shaky, but by the best-known song from the show, “Tomorrow,” Salvati’s voice was a powerhouse, and indicates a generous future for this young talent. Other standouts in what we can assume is the “professional” cast are a shaven-headed Michael Cheek, armed with a big voice and an even bigger stage presence as Daddy Warbucks, newcomer Maria Buchanan as Warbucks’ perfectly mannered assistant Grace Farrel with a sky-high soprano, and the hilarious over-the-top mugging of Paul Trani as Rooster Hannigan. The ensemble of the show, varying between playing hostile shantytown residents and prim, perky housekeeping staff, were some of the most consistent performers of the night, singing loudly, clearly and moving with definitive purpose and direction at all times.
Annie is not a dance-heavy show, and therefore the choreography was relatively perfunctory. Whether the somewhat lethargic pace of the orchestra and the show in general was a result of opening-night adjustment or directorial oversights remains to be seen, but the show is lengthy already, and the running time of nearly three hours could be reduced dramatically with tighter cues and transitions. Annie is that difficult type of show that is both for children and for adults, and the content and length of the show may be harder to take for any child under the age of six. It should also be known that Burnsville is a 45-minute trek north of Asheville, a beautiful drive into a different type of mountains, and the location of the Playhouse can be called the definition of pastoral.
Parkway Playhouse is successful in its attempt to blend community theatre with a few more experienced practitioners in order to raise the bar of performance and educate the newer, and in this case, largely younger performers. Annie is a good choice for fans of the show and movie, nostalgia-seekers who came of age in the 1980s, and anyone looking for a reason to drive north and see Western North Carolina from a different perspective.
Annie. Sponsored by Carolina First. Book by Thomas Meehan. Music by Charles Strouse. Lyrics by Martin Charnin. Based on the Tribune Media Service Comic Strip, Little Orphan Annie. Directed by Andrew Gall. Through July 10. Shows Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. With a Sunday, July 10 matinee at 2 p.m. (828) 682-4285.
Photo caption: Leapin Lizards! Two Annies! Iszie Hilbert and Lindsay Salvati will alternate as Annie at the Parkway Playhouse. Michael Cheek will play Oliver Warbucks and Belle, a Labradoodle, will appear as Sandy.