There seems to be no end of amazement the producing team of Gary Rucker and Kelly Fouchi can generate with each of their Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts shows thus far in the season. Following a top-flight season opener of "42nd Street," they dusted off the script of "Harvey" and breathed new life into an old farce.
Now, Fouchi, in her solo directorial debut, has pulled out every trick in her theatrical book to present what could be the best production of the 1977 musical "Annie" ever seen by local audiences.
The key to "Annie" is the title character. She is the centerpiece of most every scene in the musical by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin. If she can't sing, dance and act like a seasoned professional, it makes for a very long and uncomfortable evening (or matinee). She also has to possess an incredible amount of charisma and stage presence to hold the audience's attention. Usually, there is one area that's deficient to some degree or another. If she's a belter, she probably can't dance worth squat. If she can dance very well and act up a storm, she might not have the proper instrument for the singing role.
But Fouchi and her producing partner Gary Rucker have brought in a ringer: Bree Hollis, a singing and dancing sensation in the title role. She not only can sing and dance like a dream. She has the charm and personality to be the center of attention for most of this two and a half hour show.
On top of that Fouchi decided not to take any chances. She surrounded Hollis with a cast of other talented local girls, who play the roles of the orphan girls to near perfection. The choreography by Heidi Malnar and Kenny Beck is nothing short of superb, especially in "Hard Knock Life" and "N.Y.C.," one of the numbers cut from the soundtrack of the 1982 film that starred Aileen Quinn, Carol Burnett and Albert Finney.
Returning to the New Orleans stage is the multi-talented Lara Grice in the role of Miss Hannigan, the dipsomaniacal mistress in charge of the orphanage. Grice's solo song "Little Girls," where she bemoans her fate is nothing short of fantastic. Despite her away time from the stage recently to become a bride, Grice clearly shows the audience that she still has it in spades.
Fouchi also couldn't resist making this a true family experience. She enlisted the help of her own talented husband, Marc Fouchi, to take on the role of radio broadcast star Bert Healy and had their two daughters, Tess and Savannah play the roles of orphans Tessie and Molly, respectively. Then to seal the deal, she cast herself in the second act as Lily St. Regis, the larcenous girlfriend of Hannigan's brother Rooster, played by co-producer and partner, Gary Rucker. It's the first time all of the Fouchi family have been on stage together. Rucker is a hoot as Rooster, especially in the number "Easy Street."
Kurt Owens, as Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks is good in his role, although he may be a tiny step off trying to keep up with all the young talent on the Rivertown stage. Elise Harvey, who makes her New Orleans theatre debut with this production, has a clear and delightful voice and a stage presence to match in her role as Warbucks' personal secretary, Grace Farrell.
For those that remember the most recent local production of "Annie" at Le Petit Theatre, the star of that show, Madison Kerth, who also toured nationally in the title role, returns in this outing in a number of subsidiary roles as a star to be and one of the Boylan Sisters featured on the radio broadcast in Act II.
Jimmy Murphy does an outstanding job of playing the part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, while music director Alan Payne manages to make it on the stage in his role as Harold Ickes, a member of F.D.R.'s so-called "brain trust."
Even Glimpy, who plays the redoubtable Sandy, Annie's canine companion, does a great job of finding his marks or moving across the stage on command.
The intricate sets by Eric Porter and his staff of David Raphel, Loren Kerr and Theo Fogelman are worthy of very high marks and Linda Fried's costume designs were superlative. Brooklyn Shaffer's wigs are also quite good.
There is very little in this production that falls far from the designation of excellent and the dearth of available tickets is the result of good marketing and a large number of family members associated with the cast wishing to see the show. Only about 40 tickets remain for the Saturday, December 21 performance and about half the available seats for a 7:30 p.m. added show on Thursday, December 19, still remain.
"Annie" runs Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 p.m on the main stage of Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts with Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. The show on Thursday, Dec. 19 starts one half hour early at 7:30 p.m. For ticket information call 504-461-9475 or click here.