In these cash strapped times, how do you mount a blockbuster production of a Depression era musical featuring the work of two Tony Award winning artists? Olney Theatre Company was able to do just that for its widely-praised production of Annie – with a little help from its friends.
“I knew that Olney Theatre couldn’t afford to create new sets and costumes for this production,” Director Mark Waldrop revealed. But “(Managing Director) Brad (Watkins) had a connection to the company that owned the set and costume package and pulled in some favors to get it for us.”
“We rented the sets, costumes, props, wigs, shoes, and kitchen sink – anything they had to give – from NETworks Productions, an international touring company based in Columbia, Maryland,” Watkins added. “Luckily, in a former incarnation of my professional life, I worked with Ken Gentry and Seth Wenig, primary partners in NETworks. I knew NETworks had the original Theoni Aldredge Tony Award-winning costumes. I also knew they had commissioned a beautiful new touring set from Tony Award-winning designer Ming Cho Lee. Ken blessed the idea and Seth negotiated a deal that fit our budgets.”
Annie is the musical based on the long-running Harold Gray comic strip, “Little Orphan Annie” about an orphaned girl who gets into adventures with her dog Sandy under the mentorship of the fabulously wealthy capitalist, Oliver Warbucks. In the Charles Strouse musical, Annie (played in the Olney production by Caitlin Deerin) is used as a cat’s-paw by the evil Miss Hannigan (Channez McQuay) and her sleazy brother Rooster (Bobby Smith) to scam Warbucks (George Dvorsky). Spoiler alert: the good guys win. Terry Ponnick, in his enthusiastic review for DC Theatre Scene, noted “Ming Cho Lee’s surprisingly elaborate sets gave the entire production a feeling of understated richness and elegance.”
Waldrop describes the set and costumes thusly: “They are sophisticated designs by top-notch professional designers. The skewed angles and forced perspective in the orphanage set, and the way the same set can be redressed to suggest different locations within the orphanage, are brilliantly conceived. In color and design the painted backdrop for billionaire Warbucks’ mansion suggests a dollar bill. The huge curving staircase for the final scene can be easily rolled in and out of the wings and disassembles when it’s offstage. And many of the drops are designed to be back-lit, which gives them a life and beauty front lighting alone cannot achieve. It’s practically a lost art. Likewise, the costumes are carefully designed from scene to scene to blend with the scenery (as Warbucks’ servants do) or to pop against it (as Annie’s red dress does at the end of the show.) Rooster and Lily (Rooster’s love interest, played by Jenna Sokolowski) wear tacky, vulgar clothes that perfectly compliment each other. All FDR’s cabinet members are in tasteful shades of gray. It’s all beautifully conceived. They’re old fashioned techniques deployed by masters and appropriately used for an old fashioned musical. One rarely sees painted backdrops any more. But again, they’re right for this piece and have a charm and magic of their own.”
Waldrop was no fan of Annie when he began work on this project. “I saw the original Broadway production in 1978 and I saw the movie when it came out, which I hated. That’s it. I didn’t think I liked the show much.” But everything changed as he developed the show himself. “After working on it, I love it and have the highest respect for the people who created it. It’s brilliantly put together.”
Notwithstanding the quality of the set and costumes, working on the Olney stage still presented Waldrop with some technical problems. He confronted them with the director’s best weapons – wit and ingenuity. “Because the proscenium (and therefore the wings) are so far from the audience at the Olney – where there’s a large forestage in front of the proscenium, we had to utilize actors to move the furniture into place,” he observed. “That’s why Miss Hannigan is bossing the orphans to move her desk into place at the top of a couple of scenes. We couldn’t hide it, so we featured it. And it became some added comedy for the Hannigan character.”
In the end, Annie works because of the quality of the text and the quality of the performers. “I was worried about working with the children and especially worried about working with the dogs. I knew there were a lot of small roles that needed to be played by good actors and not just chorus people. So we set out to cast the best actors we could in the ensemble,” Waldrop explained. “They had to be able to sing and they had to be able to move well – but the acting was the main point. The choreographer Tara Jeanne Vallee was great about making them look great and choreographing to their strengths. And (Musical Director) Chris Youstra used their voices beautifully to get a great sound. But a lot of the cast doesn’t normally do musicals. Sometimes the stars align on certain productions – and they did on this one.”
So – did the innovative techniques Waldrop and Watkins use allow the cash-strapped theater to come out ahead? “Actually, we broke even,” Watkins confessed. “With the cost of the rental, the royalty to the designers, the truck leasing, the shop restocking fees, and the cost of the necessary refurbishments to the show, we didn’t save a penny. For a while, I thought we might save some funds, but in the 12th hour, on the eve of departing to the warehouses in Wilmington, NC, the trucking company informed us we would need two trucks versus the one truck we had been told to spec. That little twist ate up any potential savings.”
However, like Annie itself, this production has a happy ending. “The good news is, we are on budget,” Watkins said, “and I feel we could never have produced the volume of scenery required for this show within the limitations of our timeframe and allocations” were it not for the agreement with NETworks.
And yesterday, Olney announced even better news. The run of Annie has been extended until January 9, 2011.
— based on interviews by Joel Markowitz