If you read my blog on Friday, you know that I was off to MA to see a production of Annie at the Wheelock Family Theatre in Boston. Wheelock Family Theatre was where I made my professional debut playing Lois/Bianca in Kiss Me, Kate. Artistic Director Jane Staab and I have been trying to work out a way to collaborate on a Helen workshop or reading, and after seeing the show on Saturday night, I feel even more excited about the prospect. It was a wonderful production--full of friendly faces from my days as an actor in Boston, loaded with talented kids, and directed with a great deal of care and heart.
Here's a list of five things I took away from the production:
1. If directed well, there is almost nothing more exciting, endearing and engaging than watching children and animals onstage. Unfortunately, we don't have a living dog in Helen on 86th St....only a vase with the ashes of Argus, Vita's deceased dog. But as for the kids, we've got lots of them. And what I noticed as I watched Annie, is that no matter how wonderful the adults in the cast are, you just keep waiting for the kids (and the dog) to come back on stage.
2. Simplicity and honesty always beat glitz and spectacle. This production was directed simply, yet carefully, with the attention being paid to the text, the characterization and the moments between the actors. And for the first time, I really believed that Daddy Warbucks was a "rough around the edges" first-generation billionaire who grew up in Hell's Kitchen. I was touched by the budding romance between Warbucks and his secretary Grace, and wanted them to get together. I was moved when Annie sang "Tomorrow" and "Maybe," and excited when the kids belted out "Hard Knock Life." In short, this show that I know inside and out, became fresh to me. Kudos to Jane Staab for her thoughtful direction and respect for the show.
3. Annie paved the way for Helen on 86th Street. As you have read at various times in my blog, doing a show that rests in the hands of children is not easy. But, if they hadn't done it with Annie, I wouldn't be sitting here blogging. I might not have even caught the theatre bug if I hadn't seen the movie Annie--which was what led to me sign up for a children's theatre program that was doing the stage version. Annie has introduced young girls all over the world to musical theatre, and for that, I am thankful.
4. Helen on 86th St. has something that Annie doesn't have: Complexity. Again, we don't have the dog, but we've got fully dimensional and complex characters, epic Greek drama, universal issues, and very contemporary struggles that will resonate with today's audiences. And we have real life suspense. What do I mean by that? Well, in Annie, we are in on Rooster, Lily and Miss H's plot to steal the certified check and Annie from Warbucks. In Helen on 86th St., we don't know until the very end of the show what Vita's "fate" is going to be. And not only is that compelling--it's real. There isn't a clear cut answer because Vita's journey mirrors our jouneys. And as we all know, there are a lot more questions in life than answers.
5. There is a need AND an audience for good family musicals. There is a reason why half of Wheelock's performances of Annie were sold out. The night I went, the theatre was packed to the gills with families. The little girls behind me, about six and nine years old, sang along to all the songs. People jumped to their feet as soon as the curtain call began. In this day and age, there is so much we have to protect our children from seeing. It's so refreshing to be able to experience and enjoy a piece of art together as a family, that is both meaningful and age appropriate.
To see more about this production I have been blogging about, check out this ABC news report on Wheelock Family Theatre. And if you can avoid blinking, you can even see me at 1:42, in Kiss Me Kate.