Wednesday, October 27, 2010

She’s Back! By Beverly Creasey

It’s A Hard Knock Life. Tomorrow. You know the show by heart: A dozen adorable little girls, one nasty matron and a cute dog. The Wheelock Family Theatre’s production of the famous musical is not your grandmother’s ANNIE. It’s still plenty sweet but director Jane Staab’s version is more than timely, with its Depression ethos. The Wheelock’s ANNIE (playing thru Nov. 22nd) has satiric bite.

It’s almost inconceivable that the 1930’s are back, with unemployment skyrocketing and foreclosures exploding across the country. When ANNIE first took Broadway by storm in the ‘70s, its creators had no idea that the stock market crash of 1929 would resonate in our time. Staab and company highlight the politics of poverty for maximum effect, from the billboard outside the radio studio proclaiming “The World’s Highest Standard of Living” to the breadlines forming outside Daddy Warbucks’ Christmas celebration.

Anita Fuchs’ suggestive expanse of skyscraping iron and glass easily accommodates a broadcast studio, a high rise orphanage and Daddy Warbucks’ Fifth Avenue mansion. Staab’s clever “radio serial” frame for the musical is a perfect fit, since Chauncey Moore’s corny radio show is already part of the musical. The cast, too, is perfection, from Grace Brakeman’s spunky Annie to Cheryl McMahon’s villainous Miss Hannigan. Aimee Doherty makes Daddy Warbucks’ Gal Friday irresistible (especially when she’s excited) and Timothy John Smith adds dash to the character of the charismatic billionaire industrialist.

John F. King brings style and pizzaz to the featured role of Rooster: Easy Street gives him plenty of opportunity to show off Laurel Conrad’s smart choreography. The orphans do her proud, as well, in the bucket slamming, floor scrubbing Hard Knock number. Music director Steven Bergman keeps all the orphans (and adults, for that matter) on pitch, not an easy task for children. Lisa Simpson’s costumes not only suit each role. They clearly define the chasm between the haves and have-nots, the former sparkling under Daniel H. Jentzen’s lush lighting while the latter suffer the dark.

Here’s why you should give ANNIE another turn around the block: Each scene, each character has new meaning for us watching what we thought was so familiar, thanks to Staab’s brilliant, audience friendly staging. The children in my party were delighted and the adults were moved.