Little Awful Annie
As an aficionado of community theatre, I have seen some wonderful productions presented by talented amateurs over the years. Unfortunately, I have also seen some interpretations of classic shows and musicals that would have the original creative teams behind the plays rolling in their graves. Provided, of course, that they were dead.
There have been many. Some, blessedly, have faded into memory. Others, like the 3+ hour version of "Fiddler on the Roof" performed by 7th graders, or the production of "70 Girls, 70" (a show about senior citizens performed by actors aged 12 to 17), remain all-too-vivid memories. To be fair, I have also appeared in some clunkers.
There is one show, however, that wipes all thoughts of a 12 year old Frumah Sarah from my mind.
The opus I'm speaking of was a presentation of the Broadway hit, "ANNIE". Back in the 70's this show was a huge hit on the Great White Way, so when the local PTO of the school my Mother was Principal of heard of a company that would come and do a benefit performance of this show as a fundraiser, the local PTO leaders jumped at the chance, and booked them right away.
Since the company was traveling without a backstage crew, my Mother asked my friend Bob and I if we would help out, as we both had some backstage experience in high school shows, and I had the honor of being the President of my HS drama club. (By the way, if you think that being the President of the drama club could help me score the respect of my peers, you couldn't be more wrong. I would have saved time by wearing a tee shirt that said, "HEY, I'M PRESIDENT OF THE 'FAGGOT CLUB'! MOCK ME!")
I was a bit puzzled at the time that a local group was performing "ANNIE", as I didn't think the rights to present it had been released to amateurs yet. I questioned my Mother about this, but she assured me that the PTO had checked everything out, and all was legit.
When the group showed up to perform for a packed house, we discovered the "company" was a group of local kids aged 8 to 17, performing an unlicensed version of the show, under the direction of their "instructor", a 35 year old woman named Cindy. Since Cindy wasn't sure that her cast could adequately perform the title role with all the nuance it required, she herself portrayed Annie. You may wonder if a grown, pudgy woman could pull this off, especially since she towered over the children in the cast and could not sing. Well, even though she delivered her lines in a creepy baby doll voice, and sang as loudly off-key as she could, in all kindness, I must say she did not do justice to the role. It was more like watching out takes from "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane".
There are so many horrifying aspects to this show that are burned in my memory, that I haven't the time or the stomach to regale you with all of them, so here are some "highlights":
• The role of Sandy the Dog was played by Cindy's own dog, a beagle who was 19 years old with a grey, wizened face, and chronic arthritis. He was also not a method actor, and had to be dragged around stage against his will, causing him to begin choking up phlegm balls. This spoiled a bit of the pacing of the show. With all his coughing, hacking and creaking joints, it didn't look like Sandy was going to live through the performance, but trouper that he was, he did.
By the way, if you are wondering why a beagle was playing the role of a dog named after his "sandy" color, this was explained in some clever dialogue added by Cindy, who explained, "I call him 'Sandy", because of the sandy color on his head". Since he also sported the colors white and black, why didn't she choose to call him "Blackie" or "Whitey", or, given his advanced age, "Grey-ie"? The author chose to avoid this question.
• Given the small amount of performers in the piece, there was a lot of doubling up on roles amongst the cast. No one had it harder than the only male in the cast. A 13 year old who portrayed every single male role. Fortunately for him, director Cindy didn't think the character of Daddy Warbucks was essential to the plot, and limited his appearances to the boy shouting Daddy's lines from offstage. Other characters sang his songs, after telling Annie "Daddy wants me to sing this for you". Such liberties with the script were common in this production, and by the time the show was over, none of us who were there were sure whether it had lasted 45 minutes or 45 hours. Some even wondered if it happened at all.
We got our confirmation soon enough. The next day, my Mother began to receive hate mail from disgruntled parents. The general tone of most of the letters was that the show was a "piece of crap", and they had been "ripped off", and blamed my Mother for the whole thing. They were correct about the quality of the show of course, but my wise Mother wasn't about to jump in front of the bus for this one, and passed the comments (and blame) on to the true culprits, the misguided board of the PTO. All parties involved put the whole nightmare behind us.
Or did we? Later that year, I was at my local library, when the librarian asked me and a friend to help her set up chairs, as a group was coming to perform the next day. You can see where this is going. Yes, it was a production of "ANNIE". My friend and I regaled the librarian with the tales of horror of what we had seen, and she was deeply concerned. We told her not to worry, we were sure the group we had seen wouldn't dare set foot in our town again.
The next day, curiosity got the better of us, and we went to check the show out. Sure enough, if was the same group doing the same awful production. Even Sandy was still alive and kicking, although by the looks of him, we were sure he wished he wasn't.
We felt terrible for the poor librarian, but after the "performance", she came running up to us with a big smile and said, "Wasn't that darling?! I'm so glad it wasn't that group you told me about!" We just smiled and nodded. As we ran out, we passed Sandy throwing up in the lobby.
We knew how he felt.