Review: Community theater at its best in ‘Annie’

If I ruled the world I would make it mandatory for every woman, man and child to rush to Riverhead High School and see Riverhead Faculty and Community Theatre’s production of “Annie,” as it exemplifies the best of both community and theater. Plus, it’s just so much fun! I left the theater in love with the North Fork all over again, because we can do something this grand and have it supported by the community.
And this was not a small segment of the community — this show is immense — with a cast of what feels like thousands, an orchestra and even a dog. And it was all done so very well. This show made me proud to be a part of this community; after months of political contentiousness I felt happy again as I left the theater.
Maybe that’s why live theater is so important: to mirror life in a way that just makes us smile, as the show “Annie” does. Set in 1933, right in the middle of the Great Depression, the show is full of mischievous orphans, singing vagrants, a mega-rich philanthropist and even the beleaguered president of the United States, all looking for a way out of the economic hardships of the Depression and finding answers from a little red-headed girl who doesn’t have enough sense to lose hope when life isn’t looking up. Sound timely? You bet.
The comedian W.C. Fields coined the adage, “Never work with children or animals.” Thomas Meehan, the author of “Annie,” proves him wrong with most extraordinary results. It’s only fair to start with the young lady who carries the title role. Ella Watts-Gorman is just delightful and can really sing. In the great spirit that suffused the audience the night I attended, several of the little girls around me were singing every word with her — it was as if Annie was “everygirl.” Ms. Watts-Gorman brings to the role of Annie something that often eludes young performers: a stillness and focus that makes it impossible not to watch her every move. She has a simple, clear singing style appropriate for her age that I much prefer to the swooping and gliding that afflicts many child performers. Well done.
There are 30 young ladies in the production — grubby little orphans all — and they are the cutest group that you or I are likely to see for a long, long time. They sing, they dance, they stomp on people’s feet. Molly, played by Ainsley Hipp, is just the sweetest thing ever. I appreciate the toughness of the rough-and-tumble Ashley Graziano, Victoria Carroll, Lauren Schmitt and Kate Garthe, who bring energy and joy to their parts. And what can I say about the adorable Lindsey Garthe except, “Oh, my goodness!” The entire orphan chorus is just perfect. They work together and therefore shine individually.
One of the theater’s great comic villainesses is Miss Hannigan, the orphanage’s headmistress, played to the hilt by Jan McKenna. When she sang “Little Girls” I felt for her. That’s the sign of a well-played villain, when every now and then you have empathy for his or her plight.
Oliver Warbucks is played with both restraint and elegance by Robert Boedeker, who sings with a lyricism that gives pathos to the gruff Mr. Warbucks. Grace Farrell, Mr. Warbucks’ secretary/gal Friday, as played by Lauren Sisson, has the sweetness and charm of a time gone by. The two of them have  warmth and connection. They are the calm in the center of this madcap romp and they are both lovely to watch.
Oh, my goodness! There are so many things I want to tell you about. I also want to sing the praises of the entire ensemble, which brings the show’s time and place to life. The orchestra that supports the singers — not an easy feat. Rooster and Lily, played by James Stevens and Erin McKenna with hilarious villainy. Dhonna Goodale — I noticed: you rock. Mr. President (Michael Horn), I salute you. The hilarious Boylan Sisters, bravi. And everyone who kept this immense boat of a show afloat and sailing strong — particularly its director, Robert Horn, and producer, Susan Hockett.
I overheard a gaggle of young girls chatting among themselves as I left the theater: “What was your favorite part?” one high-pitched little voice queried; “Every part!” was the riposte. I concur.

Presented by Riverhead Faculty and Community Theatre. Performances continue at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 19 and 20, at Riverhead High School, Harrison Avenue. For tickets, call 725-2009.