Saturday, May 22, 2010

Orphans Extraordinaire

Orphans Extraordinaire

By Tom Wachunas

During a scene in Act I of the Players Guild Theatre production of “Annie,” Oliver (“Daddy”) Warbucks escorts Annie, along with his secretary, Grace, on a walk through Manhattan to see a movie. Praising the glitz and glamour of the city, he says to his companions - matter-of-factly, but with just a hint of mischief in his eyes, “After New York, everywhere else is just…Akron.” The line elicited a hearty guffaw from the audience - grateful, maybe, that he didn’t say Canton.

Why? Because for the sheer thrill of experiencing theatrical magic of the highest caliber, the Players Guild Theatre has once again demonstrated that Broadway got nothin’ on Canton. Here, director Jonathan Tisevich has assembled a cast of power hitters that collectively swing for the fences and deliver a grand slam to end what has already been a marvelous season.

Christopher Gales is charming and commanding in his role of the billionaire Oliver Warbucks. His singing in both “Why Should I Change A Thing” and “Something Was Missing” is a masterful, nuanced reading of his character’s authority, vulnerability and tenderness. In the role of his secretary, Grace, Amanda Medley offers a sturdy performance in a voice full with sweet, palpable warmth.

As the irascible, ebrious Miss Hannigan – the abusive orphanage supervisor – Melissa Brobeck is a wonder to behold. While there is an unmistakable echo of Carol Burnett in her performance, I can’t think of a better model on which to build this portrait – both caustic and amusing – of the besotted matron. Brobeck’s searing caricature is beyond mere imitation. Call it an eminently well-crafted homage. She’s a riveting presence throughout the evening, and no more so than in her singing of the bitterly sardonic “Little Girls.” In “Easy Street” she joins Jason Green and Elyssa Bosco, who are raucously funny in their roles of the conniving Rooster and his girlfriend, Lily. All three sing and dance the number with infectious, vaudevillian abandon.

Speaking of infectious abandon, then, there are the orphans. Natalie Welch plays the irrepressibly optimistic Annie with a credibility, skill, and confidence that is nothing short of astonishing. Her remarkably disciplined voice – poignant, soaring, crisp – cuts to the heart. Surely just as astonishing and heartrending is the performance by eight year-old Haley Jade Evans in her role of Molly. She’s a well-directed natural entertainer who revels in sassy panache, right down to her uproariously hilarious aping of the drunken Miss Hannigan. And for that matter, all twelve members of the orphan ensemble deliver one of the evening’s tightest, most memorable sequences in the endearing and thunderous “Hard Knock Life” – featuring radiant choreography by Michael Lawrence Akers, and the always sharp, ebullient sound of the eight-piece orchestra under the direction of Steve Parsons.

Spirited romps by impeccable casts have increasingly become the norm at the Players Guild, typically leaving audiences (and critics) abuzz with praise. But as director Tisevich noted in the program, his investment in these ambitious productions goes well beyond any given cast or show. Here he hopes that audience donations to the Christian Children’s Home of Ohio will make a real difference in the lives of real orphans. He writes, “It’s not just about a ‘good production’ anymore. It can’t be.”

And by God’s grace, it won’t be.

Photo by James Dreussi, courtesy Players Guild Theatre. “Annie” runs through June 13, with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00p.m., Sundays at 2:30p.m. on the Players Guild Theatre Mainstage, Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton.
Tickets: $22 adults, $17 ages 17 and younger. Call (330) 453 – 7617 or visit

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