"Annie" at Sixth Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA

“Annie” at Sixth Street Playhouse’s GK Hardt Theatre
Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Martin Charnin, Book by Thomas Meehan
Based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” by Tribune Media Services

Photo by Adrian Boyer

By Suzanne and Greg Angeo

Superstition may be justified. Friday the 13th appears to have cast a pall over the opening night of “Annie” which kicks off the “All-American Season” at Sixth Street Playhouse’s GK Hardt Theatre.

The iconic story about the orphan who runs away to find her lost parents is based on the amazingly long-running comic strip that appeared in newspapers from 1924 to June 2010. “Annie” had its Broadway debut in 1977 and won 7 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It went on to become one of America’s best-loved musicals, with many hit songs that are highly singable and danceable even for average folks. Its Depression-era setting resounds especially well with today’s audience - an economy in the toilet, a new Democrat in the White House and fear of what lies ahead. Then along comes a spunky youngster…just what the doctor ordered!

On opening night at Sixth Street, the little girl playing the lead role of Annie, Natalie Rubin, certainly looks the part. She’s fittingly adorable with a cute, turned up nose and appears well-cast with a serviceable voice. All she needs is to stay focused, to better connect with the other performers and the audience.

Brenda Reed as the nasty orphanage director Miss Hannigan gets off to a slow start but soon picks up steam and by her first key number “Little Girls” is a force to be reckoned with. Jeremy Berrick is creepy-good as her shady brother Rooster, but his vocal skills aren’t up to par, an affliction that seems to plague much of the cast.

Daddy Warbucks comes to the rescue, but at the end of scene five came a small but smoky reminder that those stage lights do get hot. Quick, nonchalant action with a fire-extinguisher by a cast member – who plays a cop, no less – took care of the problem, but not before gentle billows of smoke made their way over the stage and into the audience just in time for Warbucks’ big number “N.Y.C.”. Kudos is due to Norman Hall, the actor playing Warbucks, who ad-libbed about “New York air” and managed a few good coughs which drew peals of laughter from the audience. This, unfortunately, was one of the more memorable moments.

The large ensemble cast has some standout talent, most notably among the little orphanage girls, but at times, especially during the choral numbers, the lyrics seem jumbled and indistinct. Maybe diction lessons are in order? The disappointing orchestra sounds like a high school band with not enough rehearsal time.

Director Dwayne Stincelli’s approach doesn’t quite seem to do justice to the material, but there are several bright spots, including the “Hard Knock Life”, “Hooverville” and “Easy Street” numbers, and his use of environmental theatre which brings some of the characters out into the audience. On the other hand, some crowd scenes are very discombobulated and the unwieldy cast looks like an accidental traffic jam onstage. Overall, the production appears under-rehearsed.

Effective set design by Brandin Hurley reproduces the comic strip’s simple but vivid line drawings. Brightly colored costumes by Tracy Sigrist suggest the period setting with appropriately cartoonish style.

It may have challenges, but “Annie” can’t help but be a thoroughly charming, pleasant show, especially for kids who will enjoy the simple story and catchy songs. And if ever there was a bouncy, feel-good show for kids of all ages, this is the one.

When: August 13 to September 12, 2010
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
2:00 p.m. Saturday & Sunday matinees (Saturday matinees begin August 21)
Tickets: $15 to $39
Location: 6th Street Playhouse – GK Hardt Theatre, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com