Annie brings back old memories, while The Hairy Ape provides a total contrast in emotion, followed by a musical masterpiece in Black Pearl Sings!

Annie (played by Marianna Scott) and her dog Sandy, (played by Gertie)
Photo courtesy Ben Krantz Photography

Three outstanding theatrical productions opened this past week that will provide everything you could possibly want from dark brooding powerful drama in the bowls of a transatlantic liner, to soaring soulful music nearly lost to history and a fun-filled uplifting musical about kids and hard times. The Diablo Theatre Company (formerly known as Diablo Light Opera Company) has brought back that delightful musical about a red-headed orphan by the name of “Annie” who sings her way into the hearts of an America deeply immersed in hard times. Then a short distance down Highway 680, in Danville, the Role Players Ensemble Theatre brings back an intense dramatic drama about man’s angry search for who he is and how he fits in modern society, in Eugene O’Neill’s early play, “The Hairy Ape”. The third offering is the West Coast Premier of “Black Pearl Sings”, a powerful and inspired musical drama that provides a dramatic insight into the struggle by musicologists to preserve American Folk Songs and more specifically in this play, the musical heritage of black Americans and the African influence on their music and language.

“Annie” probably doesn’t need much explanation as it is hard to believe that there could be very many of my readership that are not familiar with the up-lifting and inspiring musical about a little orphan girl who espouses stories of hope and positive attitude and their ability to change our lives.

“Annie” began first as a comic strip entitled “Little Orphan Annie”, created by Harold Gray in 1924 and continued beyond his death in 1968, under the pen of other artists, until its final episode in June of this year. “Annie” became a fixture in American culture in radio, television, movies and finally as a Broadway musical first opening in 1977. It has been revived many times, in many countries and is a perennial favorite of regional and Community Theater, expected to return to Broadway again in 2012.

Artistic Director Daren Carollo and his staff at the Diablo Theatre Company has brought this musical back to provide new inspiration for a whole new generation of theater-goers, children and adults alike. Under the expert direction of the multi-talented Amanda Folena and the exciting choreography of Renee DeWeese, this vibrant and exciting musical bursts onto the stage of the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Musical Director Cheryl Yee Glass delivers an unequaled musical vibrancy with her live, seasoned orchestra talent that provides a musical background that is as important to the excitement of this production as are the spectacular sets and wardrobe.

The comic strip evolved during its 86 year lifespan from a simple up-beat comic strip for children into a political voice, favoring capitalism, denouncing unionism, the justice system, certain politicians and in many ways becoming a very controversial statement on the power of the press, even the comics, to influence American politics and ideals. On the other hand, this musical keeps the plot simple, introducing us to a group of adorable young ladies, imprisoned much as indentured servants in a terrible orphanage run by the hard-hearted Miss Hannigan. One of the young girls, Annie, does not consider herself an orphan as a note left with her on the orphanage doorstep in 1922, declares that her parents will return for her, leading her to believe that she was not abandoned. Annie escapes temporarily, finds a pal, in a dog, which she names Sandy (played by Gertie). She is returned to the orphanage by the authorities, but eventually is taken out of the orphanage as a recipient of a Christmas holiday goodwill gesture by the financial giant, Oliver Warbucks. She endears herself to Mr. Warbucks and his personal secretary, Grace Farrell and remains in his home as his ward. When Warbucks uses his political influence and money to assist in the search for her long lost parents, long time con artist “Rooster” Hannigan and his girlfriend, Lily, arrive at the Warbucks mansion, professing to be her real parents, the Mudges. Will Annie go to live with them or stay with Warbucks? I think you already know the answer.

The cast includes a very broad base of talent, including Marianna Scott as the vivacious and strong voiced Annie, Tielle Baker lends her warmth, exquisite voice and beauty, to the central character of Grace Farrell (Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks’ secretary). Billionaire Warbucks is played very well by DC Scarpelli and the not-so-nice orphanage administrator, Miss Hannigan is captured very well by Laurie Strawn. Miss Hannigan’s ex-con brother, Rooster Hannigan is played well by Peter Budinger and his not overly bright but very attractive girlfriend, Lily St. Regis, is characterized well by Samantha Bruce. There are far too many outstanding performances and performers to begin naming them all in the space I have, but I have to give big kudos to the orphan kids who were absolutely spectacular!

I always look forward to this bright and uplifting, fun-filled musical and you can be sure if it is produced by Diablo Theater Company that it will be simply brilliant and in every respects, this “Annie” fulfills that promise. It continues Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., now through Thursday, September 30th. The Lesher Center for the Arts is located at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek and reservations and tickets may be secured by calling 943-1471 or visiting their web site at . Ticket prices range between $17 and $48 each. Take a friend and enjoy the wonderful music and terrific dancing and excellent acting. Don’t miss this one!

The Hair Ape keeps you on the edge of your seat in The Village Theatre in Danville!

The Hairy Ape, written by Eugene O’Neill in 1921 and first performed in 1922, addresses O’Neill’s concerns about the personal, dehumanizing toll capitalism was taking on the working man everywhere, and the fears he had about the growing threat of socialism. The play takes us down into the boiler room and firemans’ forecastle (living quarters) of a transatlantic passenger ship, where the men are drinking and cursing their lives, their hopes, fears and failures. The principal character, a brutish laborer named “Yank” (James Hiser), identifies himself with the raw power generated by the boilers he stokes. Without him and his kind, he boasts that the ship would be worthless, a hunk of iron sitting idle in the middle of the ocean. This is his world, a world in which he imagines himself as the master.

When Trish Tillman as Mildred Douglas, the beautiful daughter of a very powerful steel magnate is escorted down the gangways into the belly of the ship, Yank’s bullying, raging tirade against her for being allowed down in an area where she does not belong, evokes her assessment of him as a “filthy beast”. Her words (still ringing in his ears), begins to wear on him, eventually bringing about an identity crisis. In his search for identity outside of his ship’s confines, he finds he is not equipped by education or social mores to fit in anywhere else, only finding solace with the gorillas in the zoo. Yank, the character, has also been interpreted by some as being representative of the human condition, alienated from nature by his isolated consciousness, unable to find belonging in any social group or environment.

This play under the direction of Eric Fraisher Hayes, and the superb acting of James Hiser, is a heart-stopping powerhouse of emotion. Hiser truly becomes the “filty beast”, feared and respected for his strengths in his ship-board confines, yet awkward, confused and uncertain in the outside world. The excellent cast includes Dean Creighton as the sadder but wiser Irish alcoholic, “Paddy”; Charles Woodson Parker as the cockney socialist, known simply as “Long”; Willem Long as the Industrial Workers of the World Union organization’s local leader; Ryan Terry and Robert Allen Shattuck as boiler room shipmates; Liz Ryan as Mildred’s aunt and Trish Tillman as the spiteful, self-centered rich-girl, Mildred.

This very powerful play by Eugene O’Neill continues in the Village Theater at 233 Front Street in Danville on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., closing on September 25th . Tickets and reservations can be secured by calling 314-3400 or by purchasing the tickets on line at , in the Community Center office at 420 Front street in Danville. Ticket prices range between $22 and $25 each.

Black Pearl Sings, now in production in San Jose, is a marvelous jewel that must not be missed!

Once again, the San Jose Repertory Theater has given voice to some truly stunning, poetic and highly evocative theatre in their West Coast Premier of Black Pearl Sings! Author Frank Higgins was in the audience to experience the audience reaction and it must have been exciting for him to experience the audience erupt into immediate and long lasting standing ovation as the final scene closed and two brilliant ladies took their bows.

These two actresses left the audience absolutely spellbound, thrilled and upbeat as this amazing story parallels the true stories of actual work done during the great depression by dedicated educators and musicologists, hoping to restore and preserve our heritage of American folk music. In Higgins’ story, an educated, career-obsessed white woman, Susannah (Jessica Wortham), travels from southern prison to southern prison, seeking songs of the south, hoping to make her mark as the only woman to be granted a permanent position working for the Library of Congress as an expert in early American ethnic and folk music.

While in a Texas prison, she encounters black prisoner Pearl Johnson in her search for civil war, slavery and pre-slavery music that may have originated in Africa. Pearl Johnson (Jannie Jones) is a tough as nails prisoner, incarcerated for surgically relieving a man of his tool for sexual exploration and dominance when he tried to impress her 12 year old daughter with his sexual prowess. At the time of her meeting, Pearl is frantic, not having seen her daughter for 10 years, and is no longer receiving any communication from her. Pearl knows some music that may be her ticket out of the prison to allow her to search for her daughter, provided she can convince this musicologist of the music’s importance to Susannah’s work. The battles between the two begin and bartering starts to produce some progress for both women and little by little a deep heartfelt understanding blossoms and an agreement finally emerges.

Susannah finally secures a conditional pardon for Pearl Johnson, a pardon that makes the black woman subservient to the white woman’s music restoration program. Pearl is taken around the East Coast performing before women’s groups, while the search for her missing daughter continues, part time. Both women’s objectives are finally met, although not quite as hoped for by either party, but what does emerge is a deep lasting understanding and friendship that does benefit their desires and map out their future lives.

This exquisite musical drama is exciting and certainly one that I will long remember and highly recommend. I came out of the theatre simply thrilled. Jannie Jones and Jessica Wortham are both impressive singing talents. However, when Miss Jones sang, the temperature in the theater must have gone up several degrees as the warmth she exuded was magnified by the audience’s rapture. Wow, what a magnificent voice! What a moving and uplifting story! The production under the direction of Rick Lombardo was pluperfect, perfect in every detail. The lighting by Dan Meeker, the sets by John Iacovelli, and the costumes by Frances Nelson Mcsherry added measurably to this exciting production.

Black Pearl Sings continues Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., now through September 26th. The tickets range between $35 and $74 each. Seniors get a $6 reduction in normal ticket prices. Call (408) 367-7255 for reservations or visit their web site at for additional information. The San Jose Repertory Theatre is a beautiful facility, easy to reach and always rewarding. The San Jose Repertory Company Theatre is located at 101 Paseo de San Antonio, between 2nd and 3rd Streets, one block north of East San Carlos Street. There is multi-storied public parking structure at the corner of East San Carlos Street, between 2nd and 3rd streets.