Thursday December 13, 2012

BRATTLEBORO

Charm by the truckload, bucketloads of cuteness, a winning attitude, gumption galore and enough girl power to light up New York City for a month.

The New England Youth Theatre production of "Annie," directed by Rebecca Waxman, has all this. And it has a lot more.

It’ll tug your heartstrings hard enough to make the tears fall, and it will lift you up so that you leave the theater ready to have better days ahead.

Part of that is the power of the show itself. Thomas Meehan’s story, Charles Strouse’s music and Martin Charnin’s lyrics have been classics from the minute the show opened on Broadway in 1977.

But "Annie" is tricky business. It asks a lot of both cast and crew; it demands great singing (think of having the job of delivering "Tomorrow," which everyone knows and loves and is so weighted by those expectations); it has quick and complicated set and costume changes; it asks the cast to bring a teeming city to life; it is challenging for actors; it requires skilled dancing; it uses a live dog. The list goes on.

NEYT aces all these tests.

With lots to do by a heavily girl-centered cast -- there are only four boys in this production -- this show has an ensemble feel. Still, there are some stars who must be singled out.

The title role is shared on alternate performances by Elle Jamieson and Ella Warner. When I was there, Jamieson was on stage, and she was superb vocally and did a nice job creating a character that was both plucky and sympathetic. I heard the same good things about Warner.

Sean Kelly deserves praise for the job he does as Warbucks. When I talked to him before the show went up, he was nervous about being able to convey Warbucks’ transformation from gruff, uncaring business mogul to a man whose heart warms under Annie’s charm. Kelly handled this hard job extremely well. I believed him throughout.

Casey Greenleaf knocks it out of the park as the comedically malevolent orphanage manager Miss Hannigan. Alec Silver and Maia Struthers-Friedman were similarly stellar and the scheming Rooster and Lily. Annie-Elizabeth Caltrider is a sincere, warm presence as Grace Farrell.

Bravo, too, to the orphans, who were full of equal measures of pluck and sweetness and handled Jennifer Moyse’s choreography with gusto. Music director Becky Graber helped the cast deliver fine vocal performances.

A word of praise also to Rick Barron and the NEYT tech crew for their clever set design, which used hinged panels to accomplish quick set changes from orphanage to downtown New York to Warbucks’ mansion to the White House.

I had forgotten how much Christmas is wrapped up in the plot of "Annie," which culminates on Christmas Day with plenty of holiday cheer. That seals the deal for NEYT’s production to be a perfect addition to your holiday plans.

Performances continue Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 for students, $14 for adults, and I’m sure they are becoming as scarce as warmth and good cheer out of Miss Hannigan. Tickets may be purchased in advance at www.neyt.org. For more information, call 802-246-6398.

NEYT is also holding a toy drive for local children in need. Bring wrapped toys with a girl or boy label on them to NEYT when you come for the show. Gifts will be distributed to various local service providers, who will deliver them to local children.

New England Youth Theatre is an accessible theater, with accommodations for wheelchairs, and Assistive Listening Devices for patrons who are hard of hearing.

Jon Potter can be reached at jpotter@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 149.