W.C. Fields is credited with the old showbiz adage “never work with children or animals.”
It’s obvious Fields wasn’t alive to see the comic strip Little Orphan Annie make its debut on Broadway as a musical in 1977 and revived just this past month on the Great White Way.
He’d be eating his words.
Just ask local director Jackson Mace what he thinks about working with young people, and he’d likely tell you to go see Powerhouse Theatre’s production of Annie that is currently on the stage.
Mace has just given up the “reins” as the show’s director and has been watching daily as his young leads stay up past curfew, on school nights, no less, and blast it out of the park.
The show not only showcases the talents of 10 young actors, ranging in age from nine to 14, unlike Oliver!, which Powerhouse staged in 2007, this time it’s an all-female ensemble doing the song and dance numbers (It’s a Hard Knock Life) as the orphans.
And they do a superb job.
Leading the way is 12-year-old Shaughnessy O’Brien as Annie, and she is a natural.
Although her young voice cracked a few times while hitting the high notes (and Tomorrow has a few of them) on Sunday, she demonstrated an ease on stage that endeared her to the audience, especially in her tap dance number, I Don’t Need Anything But You, with the delightful Scott May as Republican billionaire Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks.
Also natural is her gorgeous red hair —no wig needed here!
Speaking of animals, one was brought on the stage in the form of Trine, the Gemstone Aussie Labradoodle, as Sandy the dog, whom Annie befriends after she runs away from the orphanage.
Using a newspaper to mark her “spot” was ingenious (and one of the best uses of a newspaper I’ve seen, after reading it, of course) and handy in case any “accidents” occurred.
And at one hour, 45 minutes, the first act definitely requires a bathroom break before the curtain rises, and closes, but the length is necessary to establish the relationship between Annie and Warbucks, and to show the depth and despair that hit New York during the Depression.
Like the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, where children were used for hard labour, New York City was a pretty dismal place to be in the dirty ‘30s, but as Annie demonstrates to all who meet her, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Doug Fairweather) and his White House cronies, the sun will always come out tomorrow.
The message couldn’t be more fitting for what has happened in New York as of late, as well as with the dawn of a second presidency for Barack Obama.
Life will hopefully get better.
That optimism plays out throughout Annie, despite the rather sad backstory, and the comic relief comes in spades, well, mostly at the bottom of a whiskey bottle in a fantastic performance by “Lannigan,” Lana O’Brien, real-life mother to Shaughnessy.
O’Brien doesn’t exactly channel Carol Burnett (who played the infamous role of orphanage matron Miss Hannigan in the ‘82 film version of Annie), instead, she makes the role her own and succeeds brilliantly especially when singing Little Girls.
Elise Wilson, the 18-year-old Kal Secondary grad, who played the title role when she was in Grade 5 when Annie was first directed by Mace for Okanagan Landing Elementary, shines here as Grace Farrell, secretary to Warbucks.
Her voice matched beautifully with May’s in You Won’t Be an Orphan for Long, their vocal training really paying off in this show.
And then there’s the two supporting characters who come in mid-way through the play: “Rooster” Hannigan and Lily St. Regis. Matt Brown and Emily Heayn stole every scene with their obvious chemistry on the way to Easy Street with (Lana) O’Brien.
The adult ensemble numbers were also fun to watch, especially the NBC Radio spot with Bert Healy (Cale Lewis), and the street scene for N.Y.C.
Kudos must also go to the impressive sets (designed by Eugene Leveque and built by a crew of hammer-wielding experts), rags-to-riches vintage costumes (designed by Erika Belsheim) and the all-important light and sound (Vanessa Lomas, Cameron Young, et. al) where the back row could see every nuance and hear every word.
The sun will, indeed, come out for all those who check out Annie.
The show continues its sold-out run at Vernon’s Powerhouse Theatre until Sunday, Dec. 2. A wait list is available at the Ticket Seller by calling 250-549-7469 or visit www.ticketseller.ca.