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THEATRE REVIEW: Mac-Haydn Theatre’s ‘Annie’ regains its stature as a first-class musical theater experience

Directed brilliantly for theater-in-the-round by John Saunders, this company proves that a professional take on this classic can make it fine and new again and so very enjoyable.

Annie
Book by Thomas Meehan
Lyrics by Martin Charnin
Music by Charles Strouse
Choreographed by Patrick Ryan Heffernan
Directed by John Saunders

“I don’t need anything but you.”

Sebastiani Romagnolo as Rooster, Monica M. Wemitt as Miss Hannigan and Sarah Kawalek as Lily St. Regis in the Mac-Haydn Theatre production of ‘Annie.’ Photo: Sarah Kozma

Three of the funniest performances of the season, along with three of the sweetest performances of the year, dominate the current production of “Annie” at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York. Directed brilliantly for theater-in-the-round by John Saunders, this company proves that a professional take on this classic can make it fine and new again and so very enjoyable; gone is the sense of “once is enough” as a fresh take on this show provides a glow that it has missed of late. Perhaps there have been just too many community and school editions of the 1977 show for it not to have lost its credible station as a fine work of theater; its popularity cannot be denied. Now, almost unbelievably, it has regained its stature as a first-class musical theater experience.

Monica M. Wemitt is as fine a Miss Hannigan as I have seen since Dorothy Loudon first interpreted the role. Wemitt is quite different from Loudon, but her beautiful voice, her good looks faded for the role, her messy hair, her ill-fitting costumes, her broad gestures and her flirtatious takes on any and all men who come her way give her a remarkable edge. She is as funny as anyone could be in this role and, when she sings and dances, she becomes the star of show without question. She is great in her meanness toward the orphan girls (13 at a time in this show). She is wonderful as the scheming plotter with her brother and his moll. She is at her best in large groups of characters where she stands out from the rest and maintains focus at every moment.

She is aided by Lily St. Regis — named for the hotel, no less — played with verve, a sexual excitement and an almost symbolic sense of class pride by Sarah Kawalek, whose long, lean looks work perfectly for the role.

In the surprise appearance of the night, choreographer Sebastiani Romagnolo plays Hannigan’s criminal brother (and St. Regis’ lover) Rooster Hannigan. This man is so talented: He dances like a male Rockette, sings like Russ Colombo and acts like a Hollywood star. He and Kawalek are wonderful together and, when joined by Wemitt, the three tear up the joint and we laugh and love them, and even root for them in their evil plot against Annie. I couldn’t have liked them more.

Annabel Feigen as Annie and George Dvorsky as Daddy Warbucks in the Mac-Haydn Theatre production of ‘Annie.’ Photo: Sarah Kozma

George Dvorsky as Warbucks, a Depression-era billionaire, enters gruff, slowly melts into sentimental mush, and emerges stronger than he began but with a very different tone to his voice. The man is handsome, suave, asexually sexy, and gives the impression of a man who has finally found the one thing he’s been missing all his life by the end of the play. Dvorsky plays Warbucks as he should be played: real and not cartoon, self-made and not tribally rich, in charge and yet malleable. He sings like a dream, waltzes wonderfully and maintains just the right sense of distance from those around him. With the orphan girl, however, Dvorsky’s Warbucks opens his arms and heart and his all-too-human need pours forth, enveloping Annie. His name is never discussed but, if you pay attention to it, you find yourself wondering if his dominant finances are accrued through shady business during the war—World War I. It matters little for his performance here is post-acquisition and pre-distribution, and this Warbucks is moved to emotional generosity visibly and grandly in Dvorsky’s performance.

His delectable Annie was played on the night I saw the show by Annabel Feigen, a very talented young actress who sings like a mini-Ethel Merman, acts like an intelligent Shirley Temple and attracts attention from everyone everywhere. She is excellent, even in the compassionate scenes with the other girls, especially Molly (sometimes referred to as the littlest orphan), played nicely by Mallory Bourgault. Feigen apparently alternates with another girl, Rieleigh Smith, whom I did not see.

Gino Cardoni as Cordell Hull, Annabel Feigen as Annie, Shannon Cunningham as Perkins, Michael Brennan as Louis Howe, Zachary Swartout as Harold Ickes, George Dvorsky as Daddy Warbucks and Gabe Belyeu as FDR in the Mac-Haydn Theatre production of ‘Annie.’ Photo: Sarah Kozma

A good musical is heightened by the other characters that inhabit it. As Grace Farrell, Warbucks’ secretary and aide, Corinne Tork is both attractive and talented and she makes the perfect guardian for Annie, someone who admires her boss but has no designs on him. She plays the precisely right person for her job and, when she is noticed rather than talked at, the transition is wonderful to witnes,s for she glows for a moment. Tork is also a fine singer and dancer.

Gabe Belyeu shines as FDR, the president of the United States, and he even gets to sing a solo in the reprise of “Tomorrow,” for which much thanks. Connor Hubbard plays radio personality Bert Healy and is appropriately obnoxious, and the three women playing the lovely Boylan Sisters are brilliantly disaffected except for their brief moments performing on Healy’s radio show.

Two others who contribute beautifully to the show’s overall impact are Brian Wagner as Warbucks’ butler Drake and Matilda Nightingale as Sandy, the stray dog who takes up with Annie and is occasionally detained by the cops.

Director John Saunders’ touch is all over this show. Bringing back a modern classic from its community-theater identity is no easy task, but Saunders has made it happen big-time. He has destroyed the clichés that cloy and the amateurism that has dominated productions of this show for so very long. He has wisely not pushed the romantic urges of Grace and Warbucks but, instead, has allowed the more human romance between a child in need of a father and a man in need of an offspring to play out front and center. This is a reverse of the common interpretation of the show.

The orphans of the Mac-Haydn Theatre production of ‘Annie.’ Bottom row: Fiona Gorman, Mallory Bourgault, Riley O’Kane, Vivien Gorman. Middle row: Kylie Benoit, Annabel Feigen, Emma O’Kane, Fiona Phelps, Sachie Capitani. Top row: Maeve Gorman, Hannah Wisdom, Braedon Van Wie, Jane. B. Fischer. Photo: Sarah Kozma

Over the past few years as Saunders has taken on more artistic director choices for this theater, his directing skills have matured and he is now indeed a master of the form of theater-in-the-round. His large-cast, small-stage shows have the constant challenge of viewing actors in a scene. This season, and certainly with this show, the problems are solved: No one ever misses an important moment, and that is a challenge the director has faced and conquered. His fine hand has been manipulating shows all season, but “Annie” is undoubtedly his finest work yet.

He is aided by the wonderful costumes designed by Jimm Halliday, Andrew Gmoser’s excellent lighting, Kevin Gleason’s wonderful sets and David Maglione’s perfect musical direction. Matthew Reeves’ wigs are ideal for this production and Patrick Ryan Heffernan’s delightful dance movements keep the show in motion.

This is my favorite “Annie” since the original. It ends the Mac-Haydn season so, if you want to let the summer’s theater offering end on a high note, this is the show to see. If you can get a ticket, that is.

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Annie continues at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 Route 203, Chatham, New York, through Sunday, Sept. 2. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go online to machaydntheatre.org or call the box office at (518) 392-9292.

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