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James Scarborough

James Scarborough

Posted: November 1, 2010 10:02 AM

"Annie," Musical Theatre West

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Saturday night at Musical Theatre West was a more than fit night out for man and beast. Not only did Steven Glaudini and Daniel Thomas knock "Annie," a happy-ever-after story about those less fortunate, out of the park, their partnership with Long Beach Animal Care, which featured a walk-on role by a shelter dog, raised awareness of our four-legged friends as well.

Their decision to stage a musical set in America during the Depression gongs a contemporary bell. Upcoming mid-term elections and an arrhythmic economy make the story topical and relevant. In an early scene set under the 59th Street Bridge (Unlike the singer of the Simon and Garfunkel song, no one's "Feeling Groovy" here), homeless people live in a shantytown named after Herbert Hoover. At one time thriving middle class citizens, they feel the prior administration has dealt them a bad hand. Hence the reshuffle and New Deal of FDR (Mark Capri). Sound familiar?

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The story itself could be told by the production's spectacle. The sets, the costumes, the gestures and, especially the faces, craft a tale of woe trumped by wherewithal, of cynicism squashed by belief. Couple the visuals with magnificent casting, brilliant performances, iconic, well-done songs and a rousing orchestra and you've got a production that will tear at your heart strings and, because "Tomorrow" is another day, will make that same heart soar.

Based on Thomas Meehan's book, with music and lyrics by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, the plot represents a story of hope and optimism. Annie's saga may be a "Hard Knock Life" but, as long as she sings (and believes) "Maybe," then things will work out for everyone. Though she doesn't find her parents, she befriends a stray dog as well as an American President, finds a new home and a new life and, in the process, finds something to believe in, namely, herself.

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It's a rapturous story whose storyline and spectacle will appeal to all those little girls in the audience and whose moral of optimism in spite of overwhelming odds will hearten their parents.

Character contrasts were pitch perfect and the integration of narrative with visuals was nothing short of astonishing. Each character, especially Melody Hollis' for-the-ages Annie, was played true to form; each represented a strand in a tapestry of the American Dream on the verge of becoming unraveled.

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At one extreme was Andrea McArdle's Miss Hannigan, boozy and bitter, a despiser of children (an unfortunate trait for an administrator of an orphanage). She's beaten down by life but has a secure if going-nowhere job. Her shiftless brother, Rooster Hannigan (Michael Peternostro) and his girlfriend, Lily St. Regis (Bets Malone), less stable in their situations, seek unscrupulous shortcuts to "Easy Street."

At the other extreme was Jeff Austin's Oliver Warbucks, born poor but, Horatio Algier-like, tooth-and-clawed his way to success. His only problem was, "Something Was Missing." That someone was Annie.

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Hope existed, in theory at least, with the promises FDR's New Deal; in practice they resonated in the orphans: Molly (Grace Kaufman,) Petter (Alexa Freeman), Duffy (Jenna Rosen), July (Paige Befeler) and Tessie (Madison Milledge). And, of course, Hollis' Annie, effervescent, even moreso in orphanage rags. Shirley Temple who? And let's not forgot Sandy, rescued by Annie, her faithful companion.

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The visuals dazzled, they awed, they felt as if they were the product of a kid's visualization of a bedtime story told by a parent. The sets (and their nimble exchanges) and the costumes didn't only create character, they also made apparent the distinction between the Haves and Have-Nots of Depression Era America, The contrast between the Orphanage and the Warbucks mansion couldn't be better drawn. The scale of the Orphanage physically dwarfed the already socially diminished status of the girls while that of the Mansion was a larger-than-life metaphor for the fruits of ambition and application. Are there lessons here? Tons!

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Performances are 8 PM, Thu. & Fri., 2PM & 8 PM, Sat, 2 PM, Sunday (with no 2 PM performance on 10/30, with one 7 PM added on 11/7). The show runs until Nov. 14. Tickets are $10 - $80. The Carpenter Center is located at 6200 E. Atherton St. For more info cal 856-1999 ext. 4 or visit www.musical.org.