New stage provides stunning setting for Musical Playhouse's 'Annie'

Contributing writerDecember 20, 2013 

Tacoma Musical Playhouse’s holiday offering – the perennial favorite, “Annie” – is only the second show to be presented on the theater's remodelled stage with its improved sound system. The new stage is much larger, making more elaborate sets possible, and Technical Director Bruce Haasl has the opportunity to stunning effect.

Large and easily moved set pieces change from the ratty interior to Mrs. Hannigan’s orphanage to a Hooverville camp to Daddy Warbuck’s palatial home to a radio station, all with the silhouetted New York skyline in the background beautifully lighted by John Chenault.

“Annie” is the feel-good story of how a neglected but hopeful orphan girl melts the cold heart of a ruthless industrialist during the Great Depression, with comic relief provided by a pair of ne'er-do-well con artists, Rooster Hannigan (Eric Clausell) and his floozy girlfriend, Lily (Kathy Kluska). Loosely based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” by Harold Gray, the musical touches lightly upon many of the major political and social issues of the day, including President Roosevelt suddenly hitting upon the idea for the New Deal, thanks to Annie’s optimism. The story is overly simplistic – such happy hobos and orphans – but it is emotionally uplifting. The title character is played in alternating performances by two seventh graders. Madison Watkins is a student at Harbor Ridge in Gig Harbor. She was recently seen in “The Sound of Music” and as the young Cosette in “Les Misérables.” Julia Wyman goes to Lighthouse Christian School. She was also in “The Sound of Music” and was most recently in the Seattle Opera Youth Chorus performances of “Our Earth” and “Turandot.”

Veteran actor Sharry O’Hare in the role of Mrs. Hannigan lights up the stage in one of the best performances I’ve seen from her. This is a demanding role, and O’Hare plays it with confidence and panache. It’s as if the character created the actor instead of the other way around. In her interpretation, Mrs. Hannigan is a saucy and sexy old lady with a heart as hard as steel. Her every move is comic perfection, and her singing and dancing is delightful.

Also outstanding is Clausell as the irrepressible Rooster. It helps that he has arms and legs that are so long they seem to stretch from one side of the big new stage to the other. His dancing and shuffling with flapping limbs on the wonderful song “Easy Street” with Lily and Hannigan is hilarious and classic.

Another veteran actor, Mark Rake-Marona (seen in countless TMP shows) plays Daddy Warbucks. In some versions Warbucks comes across as mean and heartless at first and gradually becomes more likable, but Rake-Marona plays him as kindhearted from the start, despite being a man who gets his name from war profiteering and who is totally out of touch with the real world.

Warbucks' trusty assistant, Grace Farrell, is played with restraint and class by Leischen Moore, who sings beautifully.

The night I saw the show, Warbucks' butler was played by the director and choreographer, Jon Douglas Rake, who was not listed in the program as was apparently filling in, which he did nicely.

The chorus of orphan girls were sweet and lovable and sang and danced admirably on big production numbers like “Hard Knock Life” and “Little Girls.”

alec@alecclayton.com

Check Alec’s blog at alecclayton.blogspot.com for reviews of other area theatrical productions.

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