Tuesday, September 10, 2013

An Artful Fostering of Hope

An Artful Fostering of Hope

By Tom Wachunas 

    “It’s not just about a ‘good production’ anymore. It can’t be.” So wrote Jonathan Tisevich back in 2010, when he directed Annie at the Canton Players Guild Theatre. His program notes at the time expressed his hope that the production would somehow move theatre goers toward making a difference in the lives of marginalized children in the real world.

    Tisevich is back in the director’s seat for this current run, and once again shares that same hope, demonstrating a remarkable giftedness in eliciting palpable sincerity, believability, and generally unflagging energy from his cast. While consistently sustaining the story’s spunky child-appeal, his directing lets the story rise above the platitudes of a musical comic strip. This Annie exudes a very adult moral urgency. Yes, the mood often waxes sentimental, but strongly dosed throughout with bittersweet relevance.

    That mood is established from the outset by Annie, played by Brianna Swinford, and her 16 orphan cohorts. Swinford’s rendering of Maybe (a duet with Bella Gambone as the orphan Molly), wherein she imagines what her parents might be doing and prays for them to return, is achingly wistful. Throughout the evening, her impressive singing is infused with tonal purity and warmth. Her performance of the iconic Tomorrow is charming, mellow and airy rather than show-biz brassy. Additionally, she brings to her character a wholly disarming blend of tomboyish pragmatism and indefatigable optimism.

    And it’s a similarly infectious, sizzling gusto that informs all the orphans’ performances, starting with their fierce, electrifying communal romp through Hard Knock Life. The adorable second-grader, Bella Gambone, is practically a show unto herself, particularly when as she apes the booze-gulping orphanage supervisor, Miss Hannigan, played by Trisha Joy Fites.

    Fites’ portrait of Hannigan is a fairly riveting study of blatant self-absorption - at once a darkly humorous caricature of inebriated swagger and a sociopathic reality. Her malevolence is especially chilling in her brooding performance of Little Girls.

    Meanwhile, Jason Green is outright hilarious, in a scary sort of way, as Miss Hannigan’s con artist/ jailbird brother, Rooster. And Taylor Scott is deliciously animated in her role of Lily, Rooster’s ditzy girlfriend, imbuing the character with vaudevillian verve.

    As Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, Jay Sigler projects an endearing awkwardness in his early time with Annie, which progressively blossoms into real affection. His singing seems tentative and lacks the relatively soaring technical finesse that Heidi Swinford brings to her lovely portrayal of Grace, Warbuck’s assistant. That said, Sigler nonetheless embodies the convincing authenticity of a man anxiously courting new possibilities, a man embracing both self-awareness and selflessness. He tenderly communicates as much during the second act when he sings Something Was Missing.

    One example of effectively nuanced direction here comes at the end of Act I, after Warbucks has announced his intention to locate Annie’s parents at any cost, thus sacrificing his desire to adopt her. While the ensemble singing throughout most of the evening is certainly zestful enough, the energy in You Won’t Be an Orphan for Long is distinctly understated. Even as the words of the song ostensibly express joyous optimism, the mood is an ironically solemn, subdued conveyance of sorrow at the possibility of Annie’s departure.

     And once again, the Players Guild employs the tried and true pairing of vivacious choreography by Michael Lawrence Akers with the jazzy ebullience of the live orchestra directed by Steve Parsons. It’s a winning combination that thrusts the nostalgic musical spirit of the 1930s into fresh, sparkling relief.  

    In the end, I was reminded that Warbucks’ real wealth isn’t to be found in his bank balance. It is rather in the overflow of his genuinely caring heart - a willingness to answer a child’s hope.

    Seen in that light, and in these times so saturated with intractable cynicism and despair, maybe the most efficacious take-away from this  uplifting work of musical theatre is the hope that life could indeed imitate art.

    Annie, at the Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton. Performances THROUGH SEPTEMBER 29, at 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets $25 adults, $23 seniors, $19 for 17 and younger. To order, visit www.playersguildtheatre.com or call 330-453-7617.
    PHOTOS by Michael Lawrence Akers, from top: Brianna Swinford as Annie; The orphans; Trisha Joy Fites as Miss Hannigan; (left to right) Jay Sigler as Oliver Warbucks, Brianna Swinford as Annie, Heidi Swinford as Grace

    For other commentaries by Tom Wachunas on the performing and visual arts in the greater Canton area, visit ARTWACH at www.artwach.blogspot.com

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