Acting, choreography first-rate in lovable classic at Theatre in the Grove

The cast of Annie belted out tunes last weekend at the opening at Theatre in the Grove.Given that I had neither attended an event at the Theatre in the Grove, nor seen Annie, it is fair to say that I was completely unprepared for the delightful evening in store. I have to admit to a little trepidation at my seating, which was no more than fifteen feet from the orchestra pit and near enough to the stage that I could probably read the labels on the costumes, but once the show began, I was so swept away by the production that I probably would have been blissfully ignorant of a zombie invasion until they reached my row.

From the opening note of the overture to the final note of the finale, it was clear that the orchestra led by Sheryl Macy was the engine of the production — they played with a glorious combination of vibrancy and restraint that allowed the vocalists to shine.

Early in the show it was apparent that opening night nerves were at play and there were a few strained verses, but to my ears the ensemble hit all the right notes. Mackenzie Gross, the actress who plays “Annie,” is a delight, deftly alternating between a tough little optimist and the heart-tugging orphan who simply wants to be reunited with her parents. In a production filled to with wonderful music, it is Mackenzie’s touching rendition of “Maybe” that I will COURTESY PHOTO: JUSTICE CUSHING - (Left to right)Natasha Kujawa, Zachary Centers and Jeanna Van Dyke sing about their dreams of living on Easy Street.

I had always wondered about the obsessive fascination that female actors I have met seem to share about the role of Miss Hannigan. From the start Jeanna Van Dyke’s portrayal was thoroughly unlikeable, tawdry, sleazy ... and hilarious. I found the juxtaposition of Van Dyke’s Hannigan to an equally wonderful Jennifer Yamashiro as Grace Farrell, hysterical. The scene in which Grace tells Miss Hannigan that Oliver Warbucks wants to adopt Annie is worth the price of admission all by itself.

In a production that abounds with high caliber vocalists, musicians and material, I could not get enough of Jennifer Yamashiro. The combination of her vocal talent and the believability that she infused into her role as Grace Farrell was glorious. And Brandon B. Weaver’s delivery, gravity and timing gave a real dimension of warmth and credibility to the relationship between Warbucks and Annie without over-emphasizing the deep melancholy of the connection they share.

While Gross, Van Dyke, Yamashiro, and Weaver establish a foundation of excellence for the production, it is the exceptional ensemble that director Darren Hurley assembled which elevates TITG’s Annie from good to over-the-top great community theater. Luella Harrelson’s precocious and scene stealing “Molly” is delightful, Natasha Kujawa’s “Lily St. Regis” is a revelation (in the program she says it’s her “dream role” and she delivers it fabulously) and she is the perfect foil for Zachary Centers’ convincingly greasy “Rooster Hannigan,” Darrell Baker gives a warm and grounded performance as larger-than-life icon FDR, Emma Holland’s “Star To Be” solo is extraordinary and Sarah Ominski sparkles in multiple roles.

I’m not sure I have ever seen a musical that uses choreography so effectively to set the narrative tone. Choreographer Carla Kujawa’s choices are superb, and the ensemble executes that vision so well that even if we had been unable to hear a note, pretty much the whole story was delivered flawlessly by the motion and blocking of the COURTESY PHOTO: JUSTICE CUSHING - President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Darrell Baker, seated) is backed by his Cabinet, played by (left to right) Julio Montelongo,Tom Robinson, Adam Barrett and Carole Golart.

In an evening of great musical theater, the one somber note always present through the warp and weft of the tapestry of the performance was its dedication to Abby Robinson (who had been cast as an orphan girl) and her sister Anna Dieter-Eckerdt. As the program states, these “two beautiful souls... left us much too soon” when an accident took their lives in October. Abby’s, dad, Tom Robinson, honors the girls well with his solid performace in a variety of small roles that allow him to show off an assortment of dialects and a strong singing voice.

All in all, if Annie is indicative of the quality that Theatre In The Grove has been producing for the last 42 years, then there are a lot of theater lovers like me who should probably be kicking themselves for waiting so long to make their way out to Forest Grove.

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