“Annie” shines at Oak Bluffs School

Annie (Tessa Whitaker) gets an earful from Miss Hannigan (Cheyenne Tilton). — Photo by Ralph Stewart

With winter closing in, the Oak Bluffs School provided a much-needed dose of feel-good entertainment last weekend as a huge cast, including a gang of adorable ragamuffins, staged a sparkling version of the hit Broadway show “Annie.”

There’s almost nothing more appealing than orphans and puppies, and this particular production had both, with the former in abundance. The already large cast of 27 was joined on stage for many of the musical numbers by 25 tiny female actors (and one wee lad) whose raggedy costumes and spunky personalities delighted capacity audiences during three performances.

In the lead, 12-year-old Tessa Whitaker truly shone. Her voice was mature, strong, and even. She showed her wide range as she flawlessly executed the difficult vocals of the iconic “Tomorrow,” and she exhibited in her acting the perky cheerfulness that have made her character a symbol of optimism in the face of diversity.

The opening number, “Maybe,” as delivered by Annie and her orphan companions Aidee Espino, Danielle Hopkins, Shelby Regan, Emma Caron, Angela Hayes, and Ellie Hanjian set the stage for a marvelous evening’s entertainment, highlighted by bright songs, clever choreography, and the spectacle of seeing 50-plus kids thoroughly enjoying their time in the spotlight.

In the opening song, in which Annie longs for the return of her long-lost parents, her six orphan friends all got solo turns to display their vocal talents. Each voice was clear and sweetly unique and the cast established the feeling of camaraderie that makes for a large part of the popular show’s appeal. Director Shelagh Smilie explained that the number was written as a solo, but in the true spirit of her character, Tessa agreed wholeheartedly that the song should be shared by her talented co-stars. Music Director for the show was Brian Weiland.

The female adult roles in the show, the orphanage matron, and Warbuck’s secretary were handled with surprising maturity and skill by a couple of eighth graders. As the villainous Mrs. Hannigan, who despises the little girls in her charge, Cheyenne Tilton gave just the right edge of sarcastic nastiness to the humorous song “Little Girls.” She maintained her tyrannical edge throughout what was a very large speaking part.

Katherine Reid, who two years ago shone in the lead in “The Sound of Music,” had less singing than acting this time out. She was excellent as the kind-hearted Grace Farrell, the model of efficiency who is also expert at bringing out the softer side of her employer Warbucks. The very versatile actress comments that she enjoyed playing a professional character — a departure from other roles she’s taken on, and she was completely convincing in the more adult role.

As Oliver Warbucks, 7th-grader Oliver Carson was marvelous. Despite his size and fair, boyish looks, he huffed and puffed and strutted convincingly enough to make him figuratively tower over the taller Tessa. His commanding presence not only made him the perfect foil for his little charge, but added to the humor of many of his blowhard lines. At one point, expecting a visit from President Roosevelt, he barked to Grace, “Find out what Democrats eat!” That line might have gotten the biggest laugh of the Saturday evening performance, had not Mr. Carson’s fake mustache slipped down during his climactic confrontation scene. Amid loud laughter from the audience, the young actor handled the situation like a pro, keeping his composure (and mustache) while obviously having to fight back a laughing fit.

As the villains Rooster and Lily, James Robinson and Belle Dinning delivered perfect, hilarious impersonations of a boastful con man and his floozy moll. Their vaudeville-influenced song and dance “Easy Street,” in which they were joined by their accomplice, Ms. Hannigan, was one of the highlights of the show. In a brief cameo, Jesse Dawson did a hysterically funny, pitch-perfect job as the slick radio announcer Bert Healy.

One of the youngest cast members, fifth-grader Gabriel Noble-Shriver took on a number of small roles, including Franklin Roosevelt in a wheelchair. Playing a variety of adults, he demonstrated versatility as an actor and handled himself with great aplomb.

Although Liam Weiland, as Annie’s floppy-eared dog, Sandy, had no dialogue and in true dog fashion spent much of his time on the couch, he displayed his talent in his singing, especially when he accompanied Annie during “Tomorrow,” adding some canine touches to his performance.

With so many kids involved, Ms. Smilie and Mr. Weiland got a lot of parental help with the production. Says Mr. Weiland, who did an amazing job of reworking the full orchestral arrangements to suit just two musicians, “We had unprecedented parental help. All of the sets were made by parent volunteers. It feels like a big community project.”

After the show, the modest Tessa gushed, “I was so excited that I got the lead, but I don’t see myself as the lead. I think of the cast as the lead.” And it truly was an ensemble show in which all of the kids got a chance to sing, dance, and ham it up a little.

In the joyful ending the villains are arrested, Annie is adopted, the orphans get to spend Christmas in the mansion and receive a bounty of gifts, and FDR saves the day. With an ending like that, and a talented perky cast, it’s no wonder that Saturday night’s performance received a standing ovation.

As Tessa said, “There’s no good show without an audience, and the feeling, and the spirit.”