There was a beautiful rainbow arching its way toward the recently renovated theater. I took a picture and posted it on Facebook, writing that “The spirit of Martin Charnin is with us!” A rainbow is a promise. And yes, its corners turn down and not up, but it’s also a smile. In case you didn’t know, you’re never fully dressed without one.
Chaffin’s Barn’s exuberant “Annie” was a promise fulfilled with plenty of smiles.
The eternally optimistic lyrics of the Tony-winning Charnin (who left this life last month) coupled with the upbeat music of Charles Strouse and the entertaining book by the late Thomas Meehan (Tony winners as well) has bedazzled and enchanted audiences since its 1976 world premiere at Goodspeed Opera House under the direction of legendary former Goodspeed Musicals Executive Michael Price. Charnin directed the show when it started its 2,377-performance original Broadway run at the Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon Theatre) on April 21, 1977. There have been revivals on Broadway and around the world ever since.
Chaffin’s production not only had the creators’ wonderful work but also Joy Tilley Perryman’s astute direction, Lauri Dismuke’s hellzapoppin’ (see the Urban Dictionary definition if you don’t get my meaning) choreography and Rollie Main’s masterful musical direction, among other contributions from top-notch creatives. What a professional pleasure it was.
The thoroughly entertaining cast I saw, to borrow from a colorful expression I heard in New York years ago, could play anywhere from Broadway to Timbuktu. As with many professional productions involving children there was double casting of various juvenile roles, including the title character, so I’ll list those I didn’t see in parentheses when I mention those characters.
On closing night Annie was played by Elle Wesley (who shared the role with Ana Rivera during the run). She’s already established an impressive theater career for herself and it’s easy to see why: Her voice is like the beautiful peal of a powerful bell. Her timing is impeccable. Her energy is focused. Her acting is always believable. Her appeal is undeniable. When she sings “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” every cloud in the sky gets blown away. It was her Chaffin’s Barn debut – hopefully we’ll see her there again!
My favorite artistic polymath Galen Fott is Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks. As an actor he can do it all, too, and the Tennessee native’s time in the Big Apple was wonderfully channeled into his very “Noo Yawk” characterization of the Hell’s Kitchen native he portrays. Warbucks is tough but tender, and Fott’s proud lead on “NYC” and his gorgeous rendition of “Something Was Missing” were gems for the heart to treasure. I love watching him perform.
Jenny Norris was an absolutely delicious villain as the dastardly, but also hilarious, Miss Hannigan. I got to see Tony-winner Dorothy Loudon and Kathleen Freeman in that role, and in my book she’s right up there with them. Her comical and serious moments as an actor are excellent, and so is her singing and dancing – her “Little Girls” was such a great character revelation, and watching “Easy Street” with the equally enjoyable Curtis LeMoine (getting everything out of his terrifically terrible Rooster Hannigan) and Christina Candilora (with a voice and gestures as Lily St. Regis that made me laugh until I cried) was such a thrill.
The support from other cast members was uniformly excellent, including Natalie Rankin as the caring Grace Farrell, W. Scott Stewart as the ever-on-his-toes Drake and the ever-assured Daron Bruce as FDR. And I want to especially mention the Molly I saw: Aubrey Rodgers (Lilah Rose Benjamin played that role during the run as well) is not only an adorable seven-year-old, she’s already a strong performer with good acting skills. It’s rare to see someone that young with her performance gifts already in their proper place, so it was a real treat to watch her work.
Also adorable and every bit the treat as actors/singers/dancers were Adison Rodgers as Duffy (shared with Abigail Levy), Grayson Caughey as July (Annalaura Lyon), Daisy Urbanowicz as Pepper (Samantha McWright), Hailey Ridgeway as Kate (Adriana Rivera), and Olivia Harper and Demetrius “D.J.” Knowles II sharing the part of Tessie on Saturday and throughout the run.
The rest of the ensemble also deserves kudos for their triple-threat portrayals of multiple parts – Kelsey Brodeur, Seth Brown, Hannah Clark, Delaney Jackson, J. Robert Lindsey, Gerold Oliver, David Benjamin Perry, Emma Puerta, Morgan Riggs, Austin Jeffrey Smith, Vicki White and Katie Yeomans. When they combined their singing and dancing in such numbers as “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover,” “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” and “I Don’t Need Anything But You” it was positively electric! And veteran actor Rufus deserves plenty of extra dog treats for his lovely appearances as Sandy!
Spotless work came the band (Mains on keys, Daniel Kozlowski on drums, Luke Easterling on guitar and Raymond Riley were scintillating) and off-stage creatives like Catherine Forman (stage manager), Davy Grace McGuirt (assistant stage manager), Miriam Creighton (costumer), Daniel DeVault (lighting designer), Robin Lawshe (technical director), Kaitlin Barnett and Jacob Allen (sound engineers) and Delaynie Rizer (production assistant). As if she didn’t have enough to do the ever-amazing Perryman also did props while directing the show, and a special nod goes to the “orphan wranglers” that oversaw the child performers offstage – fellow castmate White, Kim Thornton Nygren and Monykah Tyson. As a former child performer I know just how vital that wrangling was.
When he was at Cumberland County Playhouse in 2004 directing the “Two By Two” musical he’d revised with the late Peter Stone a conversation Charnin and I had turned to “Annie.” “I always smile thinking about the smiles she still creates after all these years,” he joyfully told me. Chaffin’s Barn just made a bunch more of those.
Chaffin’s Barn’s next mainstage show is a revival of the uproarious “Southern Fried Funeral” by J. Dietz Osborne and Nate Eppler running Aug. 8-24; click here for info and tickets. There’s also “Showdown at the Rundown Saloon,” a Wild West audience participation murder mystery fundraiser produced by the lovely and talented Mr. Adam for the Make a Wish Foundation in Middle Tennessee on Aug. 20; click here for info and tickets. (And check out their delicious menu before you go – the writer of the above review loved devouring the homemade chicken salad platter with fruit, pasta salad and crackers topped off by peanut butter pie!)