by MATT REVILLE, Staff Writer
Confession being good for the soul, here goes: Kindly Uncle Matty has never, in all his [redacted number of] years covering the local theater scene, viewed a performance of “Annie.”
Nor seen the Broadway nor movie versions, either.
That was rectified with this past weekend’s Encore Stage & Studios season-ending kickoff of “Annie Jr.” (the “Jr.” signifying it has been cut down a bit from the original, better for both the young performers and their young and young-at-heart audiences).
Featuring a big cast of almost three dozen that filled up the Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre stage, the show had a couple of flaws – more on them below – but was a cheerful, well-put-together end to a resurgent season for the theater troupe.
Fun fact: According to the dialogue, should the fictional little orphan girl still be among us in spirit if not in real life, she’ll be turning 100 years young on Oct. 28. But for our purposes, we’re traveling back in time to Christmastime 1933, where the 11-year-old Annie is stuck at an orphanage that doubles as a factory (child labor laws? what child-labor laws?), overseen by the crabby and vindictive Miss Hannigan.
And then, in a surprise twist, Annie finds herself taken under the wing of a good-hearted billionaire (but aren’t they all?) and is swept away to a life she could only imagine.
Lucy McBride has the title role and delivers a winning performance. She gets to play against strong-voiced Sarah McBurney as curmudgeonly and conniving Miss Hannigan. (I found the character and the performance endearing. But I do tend to root for the villains now and then!)
Will Hemmens gives Warbucks some humanity, aided by his assistant Grace (Reagan Holland). Warbucks is even willing to put up with his nemesis, President Franklin Roosevelt, visiting his mansion. (“Grace, find out what Democrats eat,” he instructs when hearing that the president is stopping by.)
There was lots of good work done on stage. A few performances to pick out: Matthew Bloss-Baum as Rooster, Miss Hannigan’s just-out-of-prison brother, who has a good time chewing some scenery; Abigail Houle as his moll, Lily; Zach Moeller as a police officer and, owing to a small outbreak of COVID among the cast, also filled in to portray Warbucks’ butler Drake for the first weekend; and Jacob Fridman as a radio star who helps Annie try to find her parents. And don’t forget Annika Haney as Sandy, Annie’s canine companion.
The show is at its best in the big production numbers, directed by Martha Grace Moore and featuring choreography by Flannery Jamison and musical direction by D.J. Smith. Yet the little moments also stand out, too, and the direction of Moore (who is skedaddling with her husband to move out of state after a long run with local theaters) keeps the pace moving throughout.
Debra Leonard’s costumes evoked the time period well, while lighting (Gary Hauptman) and sets (Kristen Jepperson) were at Encore’s consistently high standards.
The challenge on an opening-weekend afternoon was the sound modulation. Some of the performers had body microphones, others did not; among those without, some were more adept at projecting to the back of the audience than others.
The result was akin to watching Zero Mostel constantly bellow and Gene Wilder consistently mumble their way through the 1969 movie version of “The Producers” – often too loud or too soft, only occasionally just right.
It proved a challenge for the technical crew but the ship seemed to be righted somewhat as the performance sailed on. (The obvious solution for audience members in the coming week, just in case: Sit up close so you don’t miss anything.)
“Annie Jr.” marks the first musical performed by Encore since before COVID’s arrival in early 2020. Both cast and crew handled a technically and vocally complex effort with aplomb. A strong conclusion to a resurgent season for the troupe. Bring on 2022-23!
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“Annie Jr.” runs through June 13 at Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre, 125 South Old Glebe Road in Arlington. Proof of vaccination is required; masking is optional.
For tickets and information, see the Website www.encorestage.org.