Community Theatre Review: ANNIE at Players Club of Swarthmore

During the curtain speech of Annie at the Players Club of Swarthmore, director Brian Walsh reminded the audience that community theater is volunteer theater, which served the dual purpose of loosening strings (heart and purse) and, perhaps inadvertently, setting expectations. The former purpose was necessary; dozens of people donate their time and more on a limited budget to make shows like this happen. But the latter was not; not only did everybody act their hearts out, but the entire production was top-notch, and I do not add the caveat “…for community theater.”

In case you just arrived on earth today, here is the basic plot of Annie: Annie is an orphan in depression-era NYC, under the tutelage of the less-than-gentle Miss Hannigan. Annie catches the eye and kindnesses of billionaire Oliver Warbucks, who is conflicted between wanting to adopt Annie and helping her find her birth parents.

For all of the above to work, the characters need to be fleshed-out and compassionate. We need to care that Annie wants to find her parents; that Warbucks never expected to be enamored by an 11-year-old; that Hannigan isn’t a mean old drunk for her own sake. And they need to be surrounded by a supporting staff of orphans, city folk, servants and others who help drive the action and conflict. This is no small feat for any large cast, professional or otherwise, and in this production of Annie, I found myself noticing how small touches in the ensemble helped promote and propel the narrative. For example, I paid close attention to the evolution of the orphans’ hair. It was all messy in scene one, but it uniformly became messier and messier scene by scene, a small detail by director Walsh that, for me, made an impact. I also appreciated that Danielle Marone’s choreography incorporated some contemporary touches, especially in “Hard Knock Life,” which went beyond the scrubbing and dusting and mopping mimicry and included some legit complex moves.

Neala Carroll reprises the title role (she was also Annie in the GVPAA production earlier this year), and she displays equal parts spunk and vulnerability. She also exhibits professional levels of poise as the dog, Sandy (played by Chewy), is way more interested in procuring treats, wherever they may be hiding, than in the song Annie is singing (just a little tune called “Tomorrow”; perhaps you’ve heard of it). Carroll doesn’t miss a beat or a note, despite the investigative fuzzy schnoz.

Anne Marie Scalies, making an overdue return to the stage, accomplishes a rare feat in the normally one-dimensional Miss Hannigan – she earns the audience’s sympathy. The orphans are not innocent little inconveniences who exist only to scrub the floors and get under her craw; they are children, with their own needs and personalities, and being about 8-13, they are monsters. Hannigan behaves better than most of us would, given the circumstances. Scalies absorbs the role, and I enjoyed her utterances and mutterances, all of which shaped the “always get the last word in” personality. John Paul Cappiello, as Warbucks, was authoritative but also movable and endearing.

The cast consists of people with “by-day” credits like bank trainer, realtor, physical therapist, and so much more, which makes it all the more impressive how “all out” everybody went, and credit goes to the entire production staff for fostering an environment where letting loose is encouraged and welcomed (and necessary).

Not only was there a full, large cast on stage, but there was also a 17-piece orchestra, directed by Nora McDonnell, off-stage. With ample recordings of Annie available, this was a nice touch, adding warmth and flow to the show. The only place where budget constraints were evident was in the set design, with foil windows and exposed wings and snow that fell before its time. But that’s a minor, insignificant critique in an otherwise well-produced, well-acted and well-directed production of Annie.

Annie runs on select dates through December 7. For tickets and more information, visit https://pcstheater.org/

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