“Few people have experienced more hard knocks in the last year and a half than 1) kids and 2) members of the performing arts community. So the fact that Reno’s Sierra School of Performing Arts (SSPA) was able to bring live theater back to the Robert Z. Hawkins Amphitheater at Bartley Ranch for its kid-packed production of Annie was especially poignant and meaningful.
But then the cast and crew took the concept of “the show must go on” to an entirely new level last weekend when they powered through apocalyptic levels of smoke to entertain ticket holders, cancelling just one solitary show. That, on its own, is impressive. The fact that they did it well? That’s a monumental achievement.
SSPA’s end-of-summer production always knocks it out of the park with exceptional production quality, casting, and musical theater performance. Having planned to stage this one in summer 2020, the team at this local performing arts academy had been way ahead of the game … until several of its actors, including a couple of leads, outgrew their parts, went off to college, or otherwise moved on with their lives. Directors Janet Lazarus and Adam Cates were tasked with recasting at the last minute, and, fortunately, luck was smiling on them, and they landed upon strong, talented replacements.
Coincidentally, overcoming such hard knocks to meet with good fortune happens to also be the theme of Annie, the classic musical about an 11-year-old girl who literally goes from rags to riches, thanks to her sunshiny optimism.
As the show opens, Annie (Abby Wagner) and her fellow orphans, played by Maddie Ho, Ronnie Avansino, Sophia Riella, Vivienne Keller, Zoa Clayton, and Harper Westfall, commiserate about the trials of orphanhood and their hatred of Miss Hannigan (Amy Ginder), the cruel, child-hating alcoholic who runs the Hudson Street Orphanage in New York City with an iron fist and forces the girls to do hard labor all day. We learn that Annie was left on the doorstep with a letter from her parents promising to return one day to collect her.
Then Grace Farrell (Elise Van Dyne), assistant to billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Kirk Gardner), arrives one day at the orphanage to announce that her boss would like to host one lucky orphan at his home for Christmas. Annie’s will to escape and relentlessly rosy outlook charms Miss Farrell, who selects her and brings her home to Mr. Warbucks, who hopes the girl will improve his hard-edged public image. But Annie’s good fortune vexes Miss Hannigan, who enlists her brother, Rooster (Cody Justin Hamilton), in her plan to profit from it.
Despite her being a replacement cast member, it’s hard to imagine a better Miss Hannigan than Amy Ginder, whose remarkable facial expressions and body language absolutely sell her portrayal of the shrewish headmistress, even across a smoky amphitheater.
And talk about selling it: Maddie Ho as the diminutive orphan Molly may be one of the smallest parts, not only in stature but in stage time, but I can promise her presence is one of the biggest on stage — and, dare I say it, she steals the show. I might argue she should have been given a larger, leading role.
One thing I’ve always wrestled with when it comes to Annie is the show’s difficulty in convincing me that the title character and her adoptive-father-to-be Oliver Warbucks have a real relationship connection; the script asks me to buy into it on its say-so alone. What can sell this relationship is chemistry, or some directorial nuance that conveys this visually and emotionally, but I found that lacking here, which felt like a missed opportunity.
I hesitate to mention the occasional cracking of adolescent voices mid-song or microphone glitches — it hardly seems fair considering the night’s AQI of roughly 80 bazillion. The fact that the actors showed up and belted out what are, undoubtedly, difficult notes to hit should be celebrated and honored, and I certainly do. The production quality, choreography, and acting more than make up for it.
Only three performances remain of this wonderful show, Aug. 26-28. (Thursday night’s performance was added as a makeup for the cancellation on the 21st.) These wonderfully talented, hardworking performers deserve every audience member they get.
Tickets and information here for the remaining performances of Annie Aug. 26-28.