Sun | Oct 25, 2020

JJT’s ‘Annie’ a musical treat

Published:Friday | February 15, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Mrs Hannigan (centre), played by Seana-Kaye Wright, complains about her lot in song to the orphans under her care
Sandy (left), played by Nishani Clarke, and Annie, played by Aliyah Carr, in the JJT musical.
The curtain call by the cast of ‘Annie’.

Little Orphan Annie keeps getting reincarnated. She was named way back in 1885 in a poem by James Whitcomb Riley, but her current persona was only shaped in 1924 by Harold Gray for his daily comic strip in the New York Daily News.

Between a 1930s radio show, and 2014, a series of musical stage shows and movies have followed, with the story changing a bit each time. The Jamaica Junior Theatre (JJT) production currently playing until Sunday at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts at The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, brings more changes.

In an adaptation from one of the screenplays, scriptwriter and director Akeen Mignott created a lively new character, Sandy (who was originally a dog), and peppered the dialogue with Jamaican phrases. His work, supplemented by that of a talented team, has resulted in a most enjoyable production. At the end of last Sunday’s staging, the audience applauded enthusiastically and continuously.

The musical’s main characters all played their roles with energy and conviction. They are Annie (Aliyah Carr), an orphan in a New York City orphanage; Sandy (Nishani Clarke), Annie’s bossy friend, who is invisible to all but her and the audience; Mrs Hannigan (Seana-Kaye Wright), manager of the orphanage; Mr Warbucks (Tahjae Thompson), a billionaire who befriends Annie; Grace Farrell (Kodi-Anne Brown), his personal assistant; Rooster (Damario Gutzmer), a conman, and his girlfriend Lily (Kayla South).

Oppressed child

The comic strip was popular with adults because of its political commentary. The musical has maintained its popularity over the decades for two reasons – because it is about an unhappy, oppressed child who eventually finds happiness, a character we can all identify with, and because of its many good songs. The best-known, the optimistic Tomorrow (music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin), has been covered by a score of singers.

Because the story is set mainly in the orphanage, the performers, who are between the ages of nine and 20, are mostly able to play their age, and it is not surprising that their acting is believable. The fact that the adult characters are also believable shows the performers’ enormous talent.

They get a lot of help with their portrayals from choreographer Liane Williams, who gives us several styles of dance; costume designer Carolyn Chin Yee, who dresses the ragged children in the orphanage realistically; the clowns and other street performers; the uniformed staff in Mr Warbucks’ mansion; the elegant Mr Warbucks himself; and his chic personal assistant. Others who contributed to the visual appeal of the production are lighting designer Nadia Roxborough and set designer Courtney Payne. Music director Lorenzo Smith helped the cast to sing delightfully.

Warbucks is a young, good-looking bachelor billionaire, a perfect match for the young, attractive Grace. The subplot of the two slowly getting together is one of the pleasures of the show.

On Sunday, the executive members of both the JJT and its parent company, the Jamaica Musical Theatre Company (JMTC), planned a formal thank you to some past team members including deceased directors Douglas Bennett and Peter Haley.

Looking to the future, the current JMTC chair, Danielle Stiebel-Johnson, states in her programme message that the current team aims to make the company “the best musical theatre company in Jamaica”. Their 2019-2023 plan includes “a revolutionary series” of the popular Sunday-evening concerts, a membership drive, and possibly reviving the JMTC to produce musicals. Ironically, in the last couple of decades, the parent company has been much less active than the ‘child’.