“Don’t it feel like the wind is always howlin’?/What’s a day you don’t wanna throw the towel in?”
These lines, sung by the eponymous character in Annie’s show-opening (and probably most famous) tune ‘It’s a Hard-Knock Life,’ might very well have applied to the Kaatza Lakeside Players a year ago when rumours were swirling the theatrical society might be shutting down.
Any lingering questions about the group’s future should be put to rest with this spring’s delightful rendition of Annie, which opened on Thursday.
Artistic director Dena McPhee could not have picked a better show to reintroduce musical theatre to the lake district, after a one-year pause following The Wizard of Oz in 2014.
Set in 1930s New York City, Annie is the story of a sharp-witted (and sharp-tongued) orphan girl who is desperate to escape the bleak and miserable conditions of her home at an inner city orphanage that’s run more like a sweatshop.
Although her attempts to run away are ultimately thwarted, Annie’s fortunes turn around when she’s selected to spend Christmas with (and is later adopted by) billionaire businessman Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks.
Annie does more than charm audiences with a dozen or so young, local actresses playing a horde of ragamuffin orphans — this production is nurturing and training a whole new generation of Cowichan Lake performers. And the potential McPhee has tapped into is apparent from the moment the lights come on in Act One and the opening notes of ‘It’s a Hard-Knock Life’ begin to play.
It takes real talent to have audiences smiling with delight at the sight of impoverished, malnourished children, and yet that is precisely what these youngsters manage to pull off. Keep your eyes on their faces during this opening number; despite the oft silly lyrics — “Santa Claus? What’s that? Who’s he?” — and the swooping, swishing mops and other cleaning props, the girls resist the natural urge to sing with grins or an obvious, underlying merriment.
Eleven-year-old Isabella Atchison stars as Annie, and one would never guess this is her first lead role.
Atchison’s voice is clear and steady, and even though she’s got more stage time than any other actor in the production, she keeps her energy up until the very end.
The scenes involving a live dog — a stray named Sandy that Annie befriends — had the potential to throw off even the most seasoned of actors, and yet Atchison never flinched.
She made it through all her lines and songs, even as the pooch sniffed at her pockets in search of treats.
And while it’s hard for any actor to compete with an adorable animal on stage, the play’s human scene-stealer was undeniably Lindsay Anderson in her role as Miss Hannigan, the boozing, lying and all-around-wretched orphanage matron.
“I love my job. It’s kids I hate,” she says at one point, before taking a swig from a bottle she keeps jammed in her left sock. It’s debatable whether the first part of that line is true, but the next sentiment certainly is.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else filling the role of Miss Hannigan.
The character’s wild and unpredictable personality swings — from snarling at the orphans to sobbing in despair, from sneering at Grace Farrell to spit-shining a seat for her — appear utterly natural in Anderson’s command.
And as if her character’s manic behaviour wasn’t enough of a treat, we get to watch Anderson’s drunken, grasping witch hit on everyone from the laundry man to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Annie also features strong performances from Terry Finch as Daddy Warbucks and Brandon De Pol as Miss Hannigan’s scheming brother, Rooster, although I think my favourite supporting role had to be that of Lily St. Reigs (Daniella Grieves), Rooster’s gold digging girlfriend whose squeaky Jersey accent is everything you could hope it to be.
In addition to a large and talented cast, the production features an impressive set design, with a large rotating backdrop that transitions seamlessly between the orphanage, the streets of NYC and the Warbucks mansion.
At one point in Act Two, Miss Hannigan bursts onto stage interrupting the shenanigans and genuine mirth of her young charges.
“Did I hear happiness in here?” she bellows.
And although she was not breaking the fourth wall, the character might just as well have been referring to Centennial Hall, as everyone in the audience appeared to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.