Anytime a director puts an adorable group of young girls and a pooch with a mind of its own on stage, you can pretty much guess the outcome: The audience – packed with proud family members and dog-lovers alike – will leap to its feet and give the show the longest standing ovation ever. Whether the accolades are deserved or not doesn’t matter, of course. But in the case of the musical “Annie” at The Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter, the talented and enthusiastic title character and her fellow orphans are indeed delightful – and they earned their standing-o on opening night by delivering consistent, mostly top notch performances in an otherwise uneven production.
This perky, upbeat musical, based on one of the world’s longest-running comic strips, has been a popular staple of community and professional theaters ever since its initial six-year run on Broadway ended in 1983. In the musical adaptation, 11-year-old Annie (Bryana Dorfman) tries to escape from the orphanage where she’s lived since infancy to find her parents, but she’s caught by the wicked (and usually alcohol-filled) Miss Hannigan (Diane Hill), who punishes all of the orphans for her misdeed. Shortly thereafter, Annie is chosen to spend the Christmas holidays with Oliver Warbucks (John Sartor), the world’s richest man. But when a strong connection develops between the two and Warbucks decides to adopt Annie, he offers $50,000 to her REAL parents to come forward and claim her. And wouldn’t you know it: Two people (out of hundreds) DO come forward at the last minute and seem like the real deal. But ARE they?
Director and choreographer Barbara F. Cullen’s production opens on a high note – literally – as Dorfman immediately displays her amazing voice and stage presence in the song “Maybe.” Next is “Hard Knock Life,” where we meet the other nine orphans, who – despite some struggles to reach those high notes on opening night – bubble with enthusiasm and talent. Especially notable is fourth-grader Maeve Donevan, who instantly charms the audience as Molly and steals every scene she’s in.
But as a whole, the adult lead and supporting actors don’t fair quite as well – despite their obvious talents.
Steve DeBruyne, an Encore regular, stands out once again as Rooster, Hannigan’s lowlife brother. He fully grasps the character’s motivations and delivers a spot-on performance. (He shakes his booty quite well, too, in the number “Easy Street.”)
Peter Riopelle (Paul’s twin brother, for those curious about such things) has great fun as Drake, Warbucks’ butler. And in his one scene, Jesse Yost is fully believable as a 1930s radio show host.
But many of the other adults underplay their roles as if “Annie” is a serious drama instead of a comic strip come to life. In particular, Sartor – who was quite “pitchy” throughout the night, as “American Idol” judges would say – was a bit stiff and bland. (He lacked the “bigger-than-life” power and confidence Warbucks should have.) Others, too, didn’t take their characters as far as they could have.
The multi-level set by Daniel C. Walker provides Cullen room to move her 28 performers (and one dog) about the stage, but the choreography seems uninspired and far-too basic at times. And Warbuck’s mansion lacks the opulence one would expect of a billionaire.
The ending, too, left me scratching my head: Where the heck did Sandy – the dog – come from, and how did he know to find Annie at Warbucks’ house? (He was last seen early in the first act, and generated plenty of laughs when he decided he liked all the on-stage attention and refused to leave.)
The Encore Musical Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. Thursday-Sunday through Dec. 19. $28. 734-268-6200. http://theencoretheatre.org.