Review: ‘Annie’ stays in tune on strengths of lead, solid cast work

Before “Annie” opened last Friday at Theatre Baton Rouge, I was struck by the number of friends who, though planning to attend, noted how this wasn’t their favorite musical. I suspect that attitude extends beyond my small circle, and I suspect I know why.

All it takes to turn “Annie” from charming to annoyingly cloying is for the lead role to be handled by a girl who’s been taught that she’s supposed to be a young Shirley Temple on caffeine, to be such a supercharged little ray of sunshine that the audience ends up hoping that Rooster Hannigan and Lily St. Regis succeed in their plot to wrest her away from Oliver Warbucks.

That is not a concern for TBR’s summer musical, which has already been extended for a week due to high ticket sales. Molly Beth Blanchard is as winsome an Annie as one could ever hope to see, and she is surrounded by an able and clever cast. Jenny Ballard directs.

Certainly, Blanchard is bright-eyed and smiling and bouncy, but she never spins out of control. Her singing voice is appropriately child-like but solid, with an occasional vibrato, that makes listening pleasant. That can be said of the rest of the performers, individually and in chorus.

Chip Davis, who ended a long stage hiatus in last year’s summer musical, “Les Miserables,” is a fine Daddy Warbucks, portraying the money- and power-driven tycoon whose heart softens by Annie and his assistant, Grace Farrell (played by TBR newcomer Jennifer C. Gomez). Gomez’s singing roles ask her mostly to blend in, but occasionally allow her to reveal a crystal-quality soprano voice that TBR patrons should hope they’ll hear again.

This trio carries most of the story line, but there is plenty of room for the supporting cast to shine. Miss Hannigan, the hard-drinking orphanage manager, is a role that practically begs the actress to be over the top, and that is right in Dana Todd Lux’s wheelhouse. Yet, with all her mugging and hilarious dancing, she also delivers a powerful singing voice as needed. Equally delightful are Lauren Regner as Lily — almost a reprise of her character in “Guys and Dolls” in 2011 — and Jules Dellinger as her partner in crime Rooster. Tony Collins is good in multiple roles, and side-splitting as radio announcer Bert Healy.

Lest we forget — the children. What is impressive is not that they are fun and cute (Addie Prochaska is a perfect choice as little Molly) but how they handle their dancing and vocals.

Chorals may be the hardest thing to get right in musicals, with lyrics becoming incomprehensibly muddy even with capable adults singing, but these kids — including Kennedy Benjamin, Gwen Roland, Kerrington Griffin, Susie Lucas, Virginia Moore, Katherine Ann Andreef, Hannah Bourgeois, Anna Deshotels, Ella Dupre, Sadie Marie Fontenot, Kolby Griffin, Abigail Clarice Kennedy, Grace Scoggins and Trystan Seeling — deserve a bow, as does musical director Jason Bayle.

There is little not to like with this production of “Annie.” Even if it’s not your favorite musical.