Wagon Wheel ‘Annie’ still great family fare

Few if any shows can trace their origin  to a 1885 poem.  “Annie,” the multiple Tony Award-winning musical on stage at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre through Dec. 19, can do just that. The first appearance of the red-haired moppet was in “Little Orphant Annie,” a poem by Indiana’s own James Whitcomb Riley. The verse became visual in 1924 in a comic strip which dropped the “t” to become “Little Orphan Annie” and, in 1977,  became a musical comedy titled even more succinctly “Annie.” With two film versions, revivals past and future and a long list productions amateur and professional, the Charles Strouse/Martin Charnin/Thomas Meehan creation shows no signs of stopping.

The reason why — and why it is a favorite around the Christmas holiday — is obvious in the WW production. The music is familiar enough to feel like an old friend and the heart-warming story of a small girl and her dog who triumph over every adversity is one that surely hits the audience right in its holiday heart. There are singing and dancing orphans, a red -headed waif and her adorably curly dog, a bald billionaire who can fix the problems of a nation just by picking up the phone and three dastardly, although comically appealing, villains. (Who could take thieves named Rooster and Lily St. Regis seriously?)

The obvious perils of “Annie” are finding the right pre-teens to portray Annie and her fellow orphans. They have to act, sing and dance, no easy assignment at any age. Their performances of “It’s A Hard Knock Life” and “Fully Dressed” show why these two numbers are sure fire show stoppers. And then there is the dog. Sandy doesn’t have to sing or dance, but he has to go to Annie on cue and not let the surrounding audience upset him (or her). The cumulative “ooohs” and “ahhs” which greeted his appearance and his comforting behaviour as Shaniah Ramsey delivered the show’s anthem of hope “Tomorrow” left no doubt Sandy (aka Madison) was a hit.  The same is true of Ramsey, who creates a most endearing title character and shows a stage presence beyond her years. She hits all the right notes, vocally and dramatically and surely will be on the WW stage in seasons to come. Her nemesis, orphanage matron Miss Hannigan (Ashley Pankow), is right on as a blowsy boozer who hates “Little Girls” and dreams of a bigger and better life on “Easy Street.” Joining in her nefarious schemes are her recently-unincarcerated brother Rooster (Jake Klinkhammer) and his lady love, Lily St. Regis (Jennifer Dow), “named for the hotel.” Both are hilarious in their disguised attempts to cash in on Annie’s search for her parents. Annie at Wagon Wheel PlayhouseOliver Warbucks (Mickey Fisher) assures Annie (Shaniah Ramsey) that they will find her parents in this scene from "Annie".Heading the search is Oliver Warbucks (Mickey Fisher), whose preoccupation with big business heads in another direction after Annie comes into his life. Fisher softens believably and “Something Was Missing,” is a touching moment. “I Don’t Need Anything But You,” sung with Annie and his secretary Grace (Lucy Horton), stepped up the tempo and provided Horton with another chance to display her solid soprano. Of course, the icing on  the WW cake is the singing and dancing chorus, who do triple duty as “Hooverville” inhabitants, Warbucks’ staff members, residents of “N.Y.C.” and presidential cabinet members. Not the least of these is the ever dependable Mike Yocum who plays a laundry man, a cop and F.D.R. The set design was created for the 2004 WW production by the late Roy Hine. Stephen R. Hollenbeck’s costumes allow no uncertainty as to which side of the tracks the ensemble is portraying. Lee Harris leads the seven-member orchestra solidly through the tuneful score.The entire production is in the capable hands of director/choreographer Scott Michaels. It’s a great family way to celebrate the season.

“ANNIE” plays through Dec. 19 in the theatre at 2517 E. Center Street in Warsaw. For show times and tickets, call (574) 267-8041.

'34th Street' not quite miraculous

I doubt if there is anyone with a TV set, a good memory for classic movies or a VHS /DVD player, who has not seen the 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street.” It has become as much a part of our holiday literature as anything by Dickens or Irving Berlin, surviving an attempt to colorize the black and white original, an awkward 1994 technicolor remake and a very short-lived theatrical musical version, “Here’s Love,” by “Music Man” composer Meredith Willson.

Unwilling to let the original speak for itself, yet another stage version has been available for several years. Adapted by Will Severin, Patricia De Benedetto Snyder and John Vreeke, who unhappily chose to ignore the old edict “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the play bears the name of the original Valentine Davies novel and the film. It currently is playing through Dec. 19 to very enthusiastic audiences in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium of the South Bend Civic Theatre. With a very  cast of 30-plus, many of whom seem never to have been on stage before and  play multiple roles, and a production staff of more than 20, the two hour (plus intermission) production obviously involves a large part of the community which marches through the familiar scenario like a middle school pageant. The musical interludes (attributed to Severin?) consist of familiar carols and  holiday pop tunes delivered a cappella by a variety of carolers and inserted to cover the many scene changes. Still to be determined is the identity of the young actress playing the leading role of Susan Walker. Two girls alternate in the part but, as there was no indication of which one was on stage at the performance we attended, I have no idea whether it was Madeline Varga or Natalie Rarick. Whichever, she did a very creditable job

Susan Walker (center), her mother Doris (Debbie Grattan-Rarick) and Fred Gailey (Bill Svelmoe) watch Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.Under the direction of Jewel Abram-Copenhaver, the show includes the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Santa trial and the eventual triumph of faith over fact which, of course, brings together the primary couple and leaves everyone wondering “Who was that bearded man?” Actually  it is Dan Johnson, who certainly has the very real beard required for the role of Kris Kringle. In addition to young Susan, credible performances also were delivered by Debbie Grattan-Rarick as Susan’s realistic mom Doris; Bill Svelmoe as Doris’ boyfriend Fred Gailey; Bill Johnson as prosecuting attorney Thomas Mara; and Nicole Brinkman Reeves as a timid secretary who definitely believes. The aisles are used frequently throughout the production: as a parade route and as courtroom seating to which trial onlookers carry their own metal folding chairs off and on several times. During the former, large amounts of shredded tape are dumped on the audience, which also is snowed upon during later scenes. Obviously being included in this way is a plus for the large audiences which have already required the addition of at least one more performance to the scheduled lineup.

“MIRACLE ON 34th STREET” plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and Dec. 15-18 and 3 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 19. For information and reservations, call 234-1112. .

'Wicked' still defying gravity

A “prequel” to one of the world’s favorite stories is on stage through Dec. 12 in Miller Auditorium on the campus of Kalamazoo’s Western Michigan University, In case there is any doubt, the “prequel” is a musical titled  “Wicked,” and the story is what happed before “The Wizard of Oz.” Since the Stephen Schwartz/Winnie Holzman show opened on Broadway in October 2003, it has given new meaning to the word “blockbuster,” consistently topping the list of high grossing shows ever since its first performance.

The second national tour playing now in Kalamazoo is a perfect clone of the one still breaking records in NYC. It is, in fact, the Broadway/Equity production, with only different-but-equally-talented  performers in place. Every thrilling special effect is there from the red-eyed, smoke-breathing dragon above the proscenium, to the flying monkeys, to the aerial descent of one witch and the gravity-defying ascent of the other. The sets, costumes, orchestra and, most importantly,  the actors are identical  — talent-wise — to those found on the Great White Way. It is the perfect way to see a Broadway show without traveling to New York. Learning how Elphaba, who became known as the Wicked Witch of the West, and Galinda, who became Glinda the Good, arrived at their novel designations makes for a fascinating story, one set in the years before Dorothy and Toto arrived in Oz.  It all begins with a traveling salesman and his bottle of green elixer and ends with an unlikely couple heading into the sunset. Along the way, some of Schwartz’s best melodies are given outstanding interpretations. As Elphaba, Vicki Noon has no trouble being beautifully green and handles her awesome vocal assignments with magical ease. From her first appearance and solo, “The Wizard and I,” she has the audience in the palm of her voice, and her amazing first act finale definitely defies gravity in more ways than one.

Wicked at Miller AuditoriumAs the other half of the witchy duo, Natalie Daradich creates an adorable Galinda, who eventually eliminates her first vowel in tribute to her friend. Petite and perky, she is every bubble-headed blonde until faced with some life-changing decisions. And she is “Popular,” a song that identifies the character and which she tosses off perfectly with a shake of her bouncy curls. The underlying theme of equality  (in the case of Oz, for man and beast) is obvious without being labored, as is the message of not taking everything at face value. It is, however, universal emotions that bring about the final confrontations. The company, many of whom become a variety of Ozians, is equal to the leading players. Chris Peluso’s Fiyero turns believably from a Winkie playboy to Elphaba’s devoted lover, while Michelle London’s Nessarose pines futilely for Zach Hanna’s Munchkin Boq who, in turn, is smitten with Glinda. Pulling the strings are Don Amendolia as the Wizard and Marilyn Caskey as Madame Morrible.

“WICKED” plays at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. For information and reservations, call (269) 3872300 or (800) 228-9858. As of last weekend, the best seating was available on week nights.