Tuesday, July 23rd, may have been a dark and stormy night; but there were only sunny faces inside the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium for the inaugural performance of the North Carolina Theatre‘s production of Annie. A sea of bright-eyed young children and equally eager adults crowded the halls for opening night of the much-beloved musical Annie, and did the North Carolina Theatre ever deliver. From the rousing overture until the final bows, this production delighted and proved once again that Raleigh is proud to deliver Broadway-worthy productions.
The well-known story (based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” created by Harold Gray in 1924) follows Annie, an orphaned girl in Depression-era New York City. Determined to find the parents that abandoned her with a note promising their return, Annie is a frequent runaway who lucks into a publicity-stunt stay to spend the Christmas holidays at the home of Oliver Warbucks, the richest bachelor in America.
Once there, Annie’s her pluck and charisma charms the entire staff, including Grace Farrell, the enchanting personal assistant of Mr. Warbucks. Annie eventually warms up the cold heart of the capitalist Warbucks, who launches a massive campaign to find Annie’s parents, despite his own secret desires to adopt Annie.
When a reward is offered, Miss Hannigan — the dreaded orphanage spinster who despises Annie — schemes with her shyster brother Rooster and his girlfriend Lily to imitate Annie’s erstwhile parents and abscond with the reward money. But this is Broadway; and all turns out well in the end, and on Christmas day no less.
New NCT producing artistic director Eric Woodall directs a cast so talented that it was hard to tell if the adults or the children are stealing the show. With a powerful presence and daunting demeanor, John Eric Parker is perfectly cast as Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, morphing from cold-hearted capitalist to warm teddy bear in such a manner as to touch any soul. Manna Nichols is absolutely luminous as Grace Ferrell, Warbucks’ tireless sidekick who is not-so-secretly in love with her boss and utterly enamored of little Annie. Speaking of which, Alexa Lasanta was rather affectless as the main character and failed to charm, but stunned with rock-solid powerhouse vocals.
On the whole, the orphan girls dazzled. Standouts include a feisty Adele Baldina as July, Becca Clarke as an appropriately spicy Pepper, and Emily Jewel Hoder as the sassiest little Molly that an audience could hope for. (Hoder’s impression of drunken Miss Hannigan, as well as other endearing asides, had the audience in stitches.)
Karen Ziemba’s Miss Hannigan seems more dismissive than drunk, and more sour than scheming, although her musical deliveries are quite entertaining. Nicholas Dromard’s Rooster is appropriately sketchy, and Erica Mansfield’s Lily nearly steals her scenes with effortless comedic timing.
Among the adult cast members, Alex Stewart stood out in ensemble moments with clear character choices; and Jeff Aguilar was utterly delightful throughout a range of characters, making each one distinct and loveable. And let’s not forget the precious pooch Macy, who was about the most adorable and well-behaved Sandy that any director could hope for.
The staging was established mainly with the use of beautifully designed drops, going from orphanage (placed on a moving platform and designed to be appropriately askew) to the streets of New York to the great halls of Warbucks Manor, to the White House itself, with smooth transitions augmented by Samuel Rushen’s dynamic lighting design. LeGrande Smith’s costumes were fantastic and era-appropriate, as were the wigs and makeup helmed by Elizabeth Printz.
Enough cannot be said about James Gray’s sizzling choreography, not to mention the cast’s commanding execution of it. Last but hardly least, music director/conductor Edward G. Robinson ran a tight ship of talented musicians, and this reviewer is delighted to say that sound-balance issues of past shows were a thing of memory. This production had crystal-clear vocals and swelling music working in perfect accord.
If you are coming to see this show for the nostalgia factor, or because you are bringing a young one with you, that is all well and good; but be prepared for this show to hit a little harder than one might expect. The overriding themes of a discontented country that has been deeply abused and mistreated by its presidential leadership is simmering beneath the surface, making this old-timey show feel stirringly relevant.
The show doesn’t purport to solve the nation’s current problems; but it is nice to remember that the country has been through dark times before, and survived to see brighter days. As the audience stood after the final bows and joined the cast in singing a unifying round of “Tomorrow“, it was a nice reminder that a new day is coming; and there is hope for the future, if only we remain determined to fight for it. NCT’s Annie runs through Sunday, July 28th.
SECOND OPINION: July 23rd Raleigh, NC Spectrum News Central NC interview with actress Alexa Lasanta, conducted by Caroline Blair: https://spectrumlocalnews.com/nc/triangle-sandhills/things-to-do/2019/07/23/nc-theatre-presents–annie–; July 17th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com interview with actress Carly Grissom, conducted by “Go Ask Mom” editor Sarah Lindenfeld Hall: https://www.wral.com/full-circle-nc-theatre-conservatory-student-launches-her-professional-career-in-next-week-s-production-of-annie/18509721/; July 10th Raleigh, NC WKIX 102.9 FM interview with actor John Eric Parker, conducted by Doug Austin: http://www.kix1029.com/2019/07/10/interview-john-eric-parker-from-annie/; July 7th Cary, NC RDU on Stage interview with actress Karen Ziemba, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://rduonstage.com/podcast/ep-27-tony-award-winner-karen-ziemba-talks-north-carolina-theatre-annie-a-chorus-line-and-more/; June 30th Raleigh, NC Walter Magazine preview by Catherine Currin: https://www.waltermagazine.com/art-and-culture/nct-annie/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the July 25th Triangle Review review by Dawn Reno Langley, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2019/07/ncts-production-of-annie-is-relevant-nostalgic-strong-colorful-and-downright-entertaining/.)
The North Carolina Theatre presents ANNIE, starring Tony Award® winner Karen Ziemba as Miss Hannigan, at 7:30 p.m. July 24-26 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. July 27 and 28 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $23.46-$104.15, except $25 college-student tickets.
NCT Box Office: 919-831-6941, ext. 6944, or http://www.nctheatre.com/tickets/season-tickets.
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or https://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/369155/2492450.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6941, ext. 6949; firstname.lastname@example.org; or http://nctheatre.com/groups.
SHOW: https://nctheatre.com/shows/annie, https://www.facebook.com/events/298320487591414/, and https://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/events/annie-north-carolina-theatre.
2018-19 SEASON: https://nctheatre.com/show-season/201819-season.
NCT NEWS RELEASE: https://nctheatre.com/blog/nc-theatre-announces-cast-annie.
PRESENTER: http://www.nctheatre.com/, https://www.facebook.com/nctheatre, https://twitter.com/nctheatre, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Carolina_Theatre, and http://www.youtube.com/user/nctheatre.
NCT BLOG (Stage Notes): http://www.nctheatre.com/stage-notes.
NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 2 p.m. Saturday, July 27th, performance.
“Little Orphan Annie” (comic strip, 1924-2010): https://www.britannica.com/topic/Little-Orphan-Annie-American-comic-strip (Encyclopædia Britannica), http://www.stuartliss.com/loahp/ (The Official “Little Orphan Annie” Home Page) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Orphan_Annie (Wikipedia).
Harold Gray (cartoonist, 1894-1968): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Harold-Gray (Encyclopædia Britannica), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/harold-gray-70186 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0336675/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Gray (Wikipedia).
Annie (1977 Broadway and 1978 West End musical): http://anniethemusical.com/ (official website), http://www.mtishows.com/show_detail.asp?showid=000005 (Music Theatre International), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/annie-1613 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083564/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annie_(musical) (Wikipedia).
Charles Strouse (music, b. 1928): http://www.charlesstrouse.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/charles-strouse-12463 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0835190/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Strouse (Wikipedia).
Martin Charnin (lyrics and original Broadway and 2014 tour director, 1934-2019): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/martin-charnin-7570 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0153377/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Charnin (Wikipedia).
Thomas Meehan (book, 1929-2017): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/thomas-meehan-8874 (Internet Broadway Database) https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0576070/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Meehan_(writer) (Wikipedia).
Eric Woodall (director and NCT producing artistic director): https://nctheatre.com/page/about-nc-theatre (NCT bio: scroll down and click NC THEATRE STAFF), http://iobdb.com/CreditableEntity/46570 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/eric-woodall-90124 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0940106/ (Internet Movie Database).
Melanie Simmons of Cary, NC is a film and stage actress with a BA degree in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. She has studied acting with Sande Shurin Acting Studios in New York City and The Actor’s Workshop in Los Angeles, CA; and she now trains locally with Lynda Clark (stage), Daryl Ray Carlisle (film/commercial), and Rebekah Holland (voice). Simmons has performed at Raleigh Little Theatre in Raleigh, Forest Moon Theater in Wake Forest, Stageworks Theatre in Holly Springs, and many others. She is represented by Talent One Agency in Raleigh. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.