Review: ‘Annie’ at Charm City Players

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Five years on, Charm City Players Annie-versary production of Annie closes to a nearly sold out house.

Reviewed by James Gilbert

On Sunday, November 26, I was able to see the closing performance of Charm City Player’s production of Annie, a special anniversary run of this beloved musical. It was the first show that Charm City ever performed as a company five years ago.

Director Stephen Napp goes the extra mile to transport the audience back to Depression Era America. The evening began with the playing of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” over the sound system as the house lights faded. After the song a 1930’s style newsreel plays to further transport us into the depression era. Scenes of actual Depression Era America are shown, as well as a clip of Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks giving a speech. These are not the only things used to set the mood.

Christina Napp, Reese Bruning, and E. Lee Nichol. Photograph by Lae Photography.

The costumes, by Sandy Rybczynski, Tara Herbert, and Kathryn Weaver, help to show the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich. The orphans and residents of Hooverville dressed in rags contrasted by the Oliver Warbucks and his staff wearing the best of the best, including an exquisite evening gown worn by Warbucks’ secretary Grace Farrell in the ending scenes of the show.

Rounding out the feel of the show are the sets, designed and built by Stephen Napp and Annmarie Pallanck. The Warbucks mansion is an amazing set piece. The two-story set spans the entire width of the stage, and not only boasts marble paneling and antique vases, but a huge portrait of Warbucks himself (which gets replaced in Act 2 with a portrait of both Warbucks and Annie). The grandeur of the Warbucks’ mansion is juxtaposed by the minimalism used to portray the orphanage in which the orphans live.

All of this mood setting and backdrop would mean nothing if not backed up by an amazing cast. Reese Bruning plays Annie, the lovable red headed orphan. From her first number, “Maybe,” I knew Bruning would be giving a great vocal performance throughout the remainder of the evening. Bruning has an amazing theater-filling voice and held her own amazingly well against her adult co-stars. Whether she was making the audience sing along with her performance of “Tomorrow,” laughing as she asked who the Mudges were, or tearing up when hoping she’d forget how much Daddy Warbucks meant to her, Bruning made Little Orphan Annie truly come to life.

E. Lee Nicol plays Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks. Nicol was the original Warbucks with Charm City when they opened the show five years ago. However, Nicol’s performance was still as charming and entertaining as someone tackling the role for the very first time. From the moment Warbucks walks in with his fur trimmed overcoat and fedora, until the very end of the show, Nicol commands the role of Warbucks as someone with a natural charisma.

Susan Schindler plays Miss Hannigan, the drunken disgruntled operator of the orphanage. Schindler’s portrayal of Hannigan is excellent. Schindler commands the audience’s attention from the moment she staggers onto the stage. From standing on her desk, belting out “Little Girls” to taking sips from her “medicine” bottle and trying to seduce Warbucks, Schindler gives a unique performance as Hannigan the audience loves, and does so fantastically.

Christina Napp plays Grace Farrell, Oliver Warbucks’ personal secretary. Napp takes on the role of the no nonsense woman who holds her own against the richest man in America with charm, pizzazz, and fortitude. Napp’s Grace Farrell strides across the stage with confidence when taking control of situations, but her eyes also fill with tears during the truly heart wrenching moments of the evening. Napp’s vocal performance left me wondering one thing: Why does Farrell’s character not have more to sing in this musical? Napp does take advantage of the time she gets to demonstrate her talent. She even gets to show off her soprano range when at the very end of curtain call she belts out an amazing high note at the end of the “Tomorrow” reprise.

Susan Schindler and friends. Photograph by Shealyn Lae Photography.

Melissa Ann Martin plays Lily St. Regis. Martin plays the hair-twirling, gum-chewing arm candy of Rooster Hannigan with all the brass and bluster needed to make the character great. Martin gives a great comedic performance as well as showing off her acting chops when playing St. Regis in disguise as Shirley Mudge. Martin also shines vocally during the “NYC” number when she plays the Rising Star and belts out a wonderful solo.

Gregory Quinn rounds out the lead cast as Rooster Hannigan. Quinn’s Rooster is slick and comedic. Quinn plays Rooster confidence and an air of a performer with plenty of experience hamming it up, but in the best way possible. Quinn whimsically switches to Ralph Mudge, Rooster in disguise, with a hillbilly southern drawl that has the slightest bit of Rooster’s New York gangster peeking through. When Quinn walks onto the stage, you know you will be humorously entertained.

Rounding out the cast are Charlie Albert as Drake, Angel Duque as Bert Healy, Peggy Friedman as Mrs. Pugh, Patricia Anderson as Bonnie Boylan, Tara Herbert as Ronnie Boylan, Ashley C. Dawson as Connie Boylan, Alex Fraizer as Bert Healy’s soundman Jimmy Johnson, Joe Arnett as Mr. Bundles, Frederick Frye as Lt. Ward, Gatsby the Dog as Sandy, and veteran Baltimore actor Dave Guy as F.D.R.

The supporting orphans, Charlotte Thiessen as Molly, Rose Glennon as Pepper, Heidi Thiessen as Duffy, Madison Wise as July, Mala Vong as Tessie, and Sasha Lifchez as Kate bring great personality and energy to their scenes. “It’s the Hard Knock Life” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile (reprise)” are two truly stand out numbers in the show.

Kathryn Weaver both musically directed the show and leads the orchestra as conductor and pianist. The music in the show, both orchestral and vocal was excellent. Well balanced large group numbers, stand out solo work, and an unseen live orchestra that never once overpowered the performers made for a very enjoyable music filled evening.

Tying the whole musical together is the choreography by Jason Kimmell. Kimmell puts onstage some of the best choreography I have ever seen in is community theater. Again I will mention “It’s a Hard Knock Life” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile (reprise)” as two truly stand out numbers. But Kimmell’s choreography goes much further than that. The always fun “Easy Street”, the forever stuck in your head “I think I’m Gonna Like It Here” and everyone’s famous duet “I Don’t Need Anything But You” are all excellently staged and are great fun to watch.

When Charm City Players started their company with Annie 5 years ago, the production won four awards, but at no point did this show feel like a cookie cutter or paint by numbers show. Stephen Napp and everyone involved at Charm City mounted an exceptional production of Annie that really sets a great standard for what will hopefully be many more years of exceptional theater.

Annie played through November 26, 2018, at Charm City Players in residence at Mercy High School–1300 East Northern Parkway in Baltimore, MD. For more on their current seasons, go here.