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Regional Reviews: Chicago

Skylight Music Theatre, Milwaukee
Review by John Olson|

Also see John's reviews of The Minutes and Escape to Margaritaville

Eloise Field and Andrew Varela
Photo by Mark Frohna
Annie is a popular musical and, I'll argue, a good one, but a hard one to do well, with its requirements for a pre-teen Ethel Merman, an ensemble of singing and dancing little girls plus a live dog—in addition to the usual stuff like an adult ensemble and some elaborate scenic and costuming requirements. Schools and community groups who don't have to pay their artists and are looking for opportunities to involve many volunteers can swing it, but can they really deliver the goods? Even the 2014-15 national tour of the 2012 Broadway revival was non-Equity. A good Equity production of Annie is a fairly big deal for fans of this musical and Milwaukee's 58-year-old Skylight Music Theatre has delivered a nearly flawless Annie with Equity leads and some very talented local performers.

Skylight's production features Eloise Field and KyLee Hennes taking turns as Annie, along with two alternating six-girl corps of local performers who show astonishing skill and showmanship in performing some fairly intricate dance steps by director-choreographer Molly Rhode. Field led the cast I viewed, called the "Light" cast (Hennes' team is called the "Sky" cast) and apart from appearing a little lost at what to do when she was not speaking or singing, delivered like the pro she is, with a number of professional credits at Milwaukee's First Stage youth company. (Hennes' credits include roles at Chicago's Lyric Opera and Northwestern University.)

Field's take on the little orphan girl is key to the success of this production. Her Annie is a little tough—not to be fooled with—and her trademark optimism comes off as strength rather than mawkishness. She believes things will get better because she simply won't accept the alternative. Field's performance is representative of Rhode's smart approach to the piece: comic, but not so broadly as to go for cheap laughs; and gritty enough to establish emotional stakes that help us invest in the story rather than dismiss it as fluff.

Even more impressive, though, is Equity actor Andrew Varela as Daddy Warbucks. A resident of Milwaukee with Broadway and national tour credits as Les Misérables's Javert and The Phantom of the Opera's Phantom, he gives a grounded Warbucks that appears to sincerely warm to little Annie. Our ability to believe Varela's Warbucks allows us to believe in the whole story. Listening to Varela's powerful baritone is a treat as well—the singer has a voice that sounds right at home in Skylight's jewel box replica of an Italian opera house. Varela's fellow Equity leads include Milwaukee veteran actress Carrie Hitchcock as a funny, but only mildly threatening and not entirely hateful Miss Hannigan; and Matthew Crowle, arguably Chicago's funniest comedic musical actor. Crowle is commuting to Milwaukee (a not uncommon practice among Chicago's acting community) to play Rooster Hannigan, a smaller role than some of those that have won him acclaim in the Windy City (The Producers's Leo Bloom and Forum's Hysterium come to mind). Crowle's Rooster is a slimy con man with the spine of a Slinky. His performance is nicely complemented by Milwaukeean Samantha Sostarich as Lily St. Regis in a sweetly dumb characterization.

Depression-era New York City is vividly created in the scenic and lighting design by Peter Dean Beck, which incorporates a variety of flats and projections to create the orphanage, the Warbucks mansion, the White House, and streets in New York City. The production refreshingly chooses not to worry too much about resemblance to the characters' looks from the original comic strip or the Broadway or film Annies. Varela does not shave his head as Warbucks—so appropriately enough, Annie's hair is not permed into a mop of curls after her makeover. Further, the little dog Shiloh who alternates with Skippy as Annie's dog Sandy looks not much like the Sandy of earlier incarnations. No matter. It suggests this creative team has confidence enough in the material to let it play on its own terms.

With its Christmas theme, a good Annie is always appropriate this time of year. Coming at the end of this annus horribilis, though, its optimism is sorely needed and greatly welcome.

Annie will play the Cabot Theatre in the Milwaukee Theater Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, through December 27, 2017. For tickets and further information visit or call 414-291-7800.

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