November 16, 2017
On a set that just keeps on giving – from the dim opening scene at a municipal orphanage on St. Mark’s Place to a homeless encampment under a city bridge, to the snow falling in the window of billionaire Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks’ Fifth Avenue mansion – Annie at the John W. Engeman Theater at Northport is a delightful performance of a Christmas masterpiece.
Presley Ryan, 13, of New York City, performs an Annie worthy of the grand stage, where she has been before, on Broadway in Fun Home and at Madison Square Garden as Cindy Lou Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
Ms. Ryan’s voice is strong, crisp and clear, and her evolving relationship with Mr. Warbucks, played just right by George Dvorsky, is at first engaging and then heartwarming. Mr. Dvorsky also brings Broadway credentials to the Engeman, having performed in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Passion, Marilyn and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
With a tremendously talented chorus of six orphan girls, Annie opens with the iconic show tune It’s the Hard-Knock Life, which drew a momentous roar of applause from the Engeman audience on opening night Saturday, November 11th. Then, right into Tomorrow, so popular and iconic it makes you want to sing along – “You can bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow…” And, by then you’re hooked. The story of little orphan Annie being adopted by the billionaire industrialist Daddy Warbucks unfolds like any holiday extravaganza should, happily ever after on Christmas Day.
Annie, which played for 2,377 shows on Broadway from 1977 to 1983, setting a record for most performances at the Alvin Theater, now the Neil Simon Theater, includes a children ensemble and an adult ensemble and at times they perform as one, 14 voices strong.
Engeman Theater Producing Artistic Director Richard Dolce said a lot of work went into selecting Ms. Ryan for the part of Annie.
“It’s an iconic role, so we had to make sure she could sing – Tomorrow and Maybe are tough songs – and you have to make sure she is an actress, because you have to believe this kid is tough and can make it on the streets and also that you an bond with her,” Mr. Dolce said. “Presley is amazing. She’s a pro, comes incredibly prepared, and is probably one of the most focused and dedicated performers we have had here.”
Ms. Ryan, who turns 14 next month, started acting professional when she was eight years old. “I’ve been acting all my life. It’s just something I love to do,” she said during an interview in the lobby after her press-night performance.
Ms. Ryan, who moved from Short Hills, New Jersey to Manhattan to pursue her career in acting, played Annie as a kid but she said that was nothing like the Engeman production. “I love this show,” Ms. Ryan said. “There are not that many shows where a girl or any kid gets to be a real lead, the title role. This has just been such a great experience for me. I love it so much.”
Ms. Ryan said Tomorrow is her favorite song because of the unknown involved with acting with a dog, Sandy, played by a rescue dog Moon.
“I always improvise in my songs, but a dog is a dog. It’s an animal so you never know what could happen,” Ms. Ryan said. “He could not want to listen one night or he could just do the right thing one night. So I’m always on my feet in that song. But it’s also such a great song that I love to sing. It’s just one of those songs that you get to belt your face off, and I just love that.”
Ms. Ryan said she also loves working with Mr. Dvorsky.
“I love George,” she said. “It’s different, because when we first meet, Annie is why with him and she doesn’t really want to get to know him. She is scared to death because she has never really seen a male figure this way. Mr. Warbucks is a new male figure to her and she has to get more comfortable with him as the show progresses. I think that’s really interesting.”
“And it’s so much fun when we get to work onstage together,” she said.
This is Ms. Ryan’s first performance at the Engeman Theater. She said it is a beautiful theater, especially the lobby. “I just love the whole cast; everybody is just so nice and this is just a great show. Everybody should come and see it. It’s just so great.”
“It’s a great show for families,” Mr. Dolce said. “For the holiday season we pick a show you can bring your children and grandchildren and this is the perfect show for that.”
“In these times we’re living in, a little optimism and a show that lifts your spirits a little isn’t the worst thing in the world, and I think this show gives it to you in spades,” Mr. Dolce said. “It leave you smiling on the way out and it is a show that you are happy sharing with your kids and your family during the holiday season.”
Mr. Dolce doesn’t like to pick one classic tune over another in this iconic Broadway hit, but he did admit that It’s the Hard-Knock Life is a classic he likes and another favorite is Easy Street with Lynn Andrews as Miss Hannigan, Jon Peterson as Rooster and Gina Milo as Lily St. Regis. “The three of them are just so talented. They really sell it,” Mr. Dolce said.
Mr. Dolce said they began rehearsing with the children two weeks before they brought in the adult actors in the cast. “So when they began rehearsing with the adults they were already good to go and the adults were like whoa,” he said.
Mr. Dolce said another dynamic is that other than Annie they have two casts of orphans performing on alternating nights, which added to the challenge of the show.
“Every time we do anything we have to do it twice. Every scene change has to be done twice, every costume change has to be done twice. So we had to make sure that two sets of kids had enough time to really learn everything,” Mr. Dolce said. “But kids are like little sponges. They are just so into it, and the director Antoinette [DiPietropolo] has kids. So we just had a very seamless experience.”
The set for this show is absolutely incredible, one of the most dynamic ever built on the Engeman stage, arches in three layers in dissenting sizes, with lights that dim for a dark mood at the orphanage and then brighten for cheerier times at the Warbucks mansion. Inside the arches there are also movable parts, pillars sliding in and out and chandelier lighting rising and lowering from the ceiling. Mr. Dolce said it is all operated manually by the actors coming and going from the stage to the wings.
“I think this is one of the best sets we have ever had as far as going from location to location,” Mr. Dolce said.
Compared to a Broadway stage, Mr. Dolce said the Engeman is limited in space. So in the set design they try to establish the overarching theme and build a shell, then bring different things into the shell for each scene: Oklahoma! a barn and bring in a chair or something; or Gypsy the back stage of a theater and bring in a table.
In Annie they needed to go from the lower east side orphanage to the wealthiest man in the world’s mansion on Fifth Avenue. “We couldn’t think of a way to do it the way we normally would, so we came up with this whole different concept and make things completely go away and by making accommodations in the arches with the lights,” Mr. Dolce said.
Mr. Dolce said the intent was to make the orphanage feel dark and claustrophobic and then to make the Warbucks estate bright, open and inviting. “The lights and the brightness of it gives us different looks, and then you throw in the radio station and the presidential cabinet, but the orphanage and the mansion are two big ones that we needed to nail,” Mr. Dolce said.