‘Tomorrow’ is now: EPAC presents “Annie”

By on December 10, 2014

I have to admit, I went into the opening night performance of EPAC’s “Annie” on Thursday, Dec. 4 with a bias. Not long ago, I saw a superb version of the musical. You see, it wasn’t even two years ago when my daughter appeared in EPAC’s Kids4Kids production of “Annie Jr.” as part of the orphan ensemble.

That show was directed by Irving Gonzalez who has been instrumental in much of what EPAC does for young performers. He is hard at work directing the next Kids4Kids production, “Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr.,” which will kick off EPAC’s next season of shows on Feb. 6, 2015. But before I digress too far down my own memory lane or turn my attention toward a new slate of shows for next year, there is “Annie,” directed by none other than Gonzalez.

The story of Little Orphan Annie is well known. The sensationally popular musical (book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse, and lyrics by Martin Charnin) is based on the comic strip by Harold Gray, a World War I veteran, Freemason, and freelance commercial artist. Gray is heralded as being a pioneer in politicizing comic strips. Little Orphan Annie first appeared in the New York Daily News in 1924 and ran posthumously until 2010. The strip inspired a 1930s radio show, four film adaptations (the latest to be released nationwide on Dec. 19), and of course, a musical.

The opening scene of “Annie” introduces us to the lovable lass (played by Tori Moss) and her band of orphans under the charge of the contemptible Miss Hannigan (played by EPAC regular Kristie Ohlinger). Annie escapes from the orphanage, finds her canine companion Sandy, belts out the well-known “Tomorrow,” and ends up in a Hooverville. The Hooverville number, which some complain does not completely fit with the rest of the show, is a direct reference to Gray’s propensity to infuse political issues into his entertainment. “Annie” is not just family-friendly entertainment; it is a missive on money, power, and politics. For me, Hooverville is a scene standing out not for what it detracts from the frivolity of the musical, but what it adds for historical reference. The term “Hooverville” describes the thousands of shanty towns constructed by the homeless population during the Great Depression. The Hooverville number in “Annie” features the entire company and Gonzalez has shown he can direct and choreograph this scene masterfully; it is just one highlight moment.

Kristie Ohlinger (left) portrays Miss Hannigan and Tori Moss plays Annie, in the Ephrata Performing Arts Center’s rendition of this timeless classic of an orphan finding a home. “Annie” plays at EPAC through Dec. 21. Tickets are available at ephrataperformingartscenter.com and are selling out very quickly. (Photo by Marty Heisey)

Kristie Ohlinger (left) portrays Miss Hannigan and Tori Moss plays Annie, in the Ephrata Performing Arts Center’s rendition of this timeless classic of an orphan finding a home. “Annie” plays at EPAC through Dec. 21. Tickets are available at ephrataperformingartscenter.com and are selling out very quickly. (Photo by Marty Heisey)

Immediately after Hooverville it was time for Ohlinger to shine as the desperate, gin-soaked Miss Hannigan and perform the powerful number “Little Girls.” A perfect smile-raiser after the seriousness of Hooverville, “Little Girls” is always a crowd-pleasing number. Ohlinger took the opportunity to gain confidence in her character, which she carried throughout the rest of the show. Meanwhile, Annie is whisked away to meet Daddy Warbucks (Jim Rule), the illustrious business magnate who wishes to have an orphan join his home for Christmas. But a conspiracy is incubating when Hannigan, her brother Rooster (Jeff Fisher), and his sweetheart Lily St. Regis (Meredith Stone) plot to steel Annie away from her turn of fortune when Warbucks decides to adopt her.

Of course, everything turns out fine when Warbucks enlists the services of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Bruce Weaver) and the nefarious plot is foiled. It is a merry Christmas after all and Annie is reunited with her friends from the orphanage. The biggest thing to take away from “Annie” is its charm. “Annie” is a fun musical to be enjoyed by the entire family. It is engaging for children and amusing for adults (with use of some sharp political wit).

There was one glaring omission during Thursday evening’s performance. I missed Sandy. Kody the golden retriever made only one appearance — in Act 1’s “Tomorrow” scene — where she promptly went off script and into the audience. I was told by a trustworthy source Sandy hit all her marks on Friday night’s performance. I would have enjoyed seeing more of Annie’s canine companion.

In both mine and my daughter’s opinion it was Rule who stole the show. His commanding vocals delivered heartfelt expression in the “N.Y.C.,” “Why Should I Change a Thing,” and “Something Was Missing” numbers. Rule’s delivery was perfect, especially when his character required sharp wit and strong tone.

I’d also like to congratulate Karey Getz who jumped from her normal position behind the sound board to the stage as part of the ensemble. This production of “Annie” features many performers either acting in their first main stage production or making their EPAC debut, including Moss as Annie. Moss has performed in “Les Miserable,” “A Swingin’ Christmas,” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

By now, having worked “Annie” in several forms, Director Irving Gonzalez seems to know what he is looking for: strong voices, sharp choreography, and snappy delivery. He nailed all three. EPAC’s “Annie” is an early Christmas gift for lovers of live theater. Don’t just take my word for it; take into account the Dec. 20 matinee showing sold out before the very first performance. EPAC added a second matinee to the weekend, Sunday, Dec. 21, at 2 p.m., which marks the end of the show’s run.

Michael C. Upton works as a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure covering subjects ranging from funk punk to fine wine. He invites your comments and suggestions at 354-0609.

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