Reviewed by Marc Wheeler
Despite an unexceptional book, ordinary, on-the-nose lyrics and mostly predictable plot, Sam Johnides and Tony Gonzalez’s musical “Annabella” is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, if primarily for its haunting, glorious score and sensational vocalists.
Set once upon a time in a primeval forest, (once upon a time in Italy, specifically), “Annabella” follows a captive witch of titular name, who, lonely fair maiden she is, longs for a life of passion, laughter and pain — hell, even just a friend would be nice — to give her soul meaning.
Along comes Lorenzo, a traveling puppeteer, who in a close call with death is brought back to life through Annabella’s magical touch. But beware, Valentina, her jealous captor, finds Lorenzo object of her affection.
Three marionettes, Livia, Emilia and Giovanni, round out the cast as Lorenzo’s toy “children” — although their lifelike qualities certainly call into question their mere material status.
“Annabella,” directed by Carol Vaness, is by no means complex storytelling — romantic jealousy and a desire for “more” the long-serving plot device with simple, standard dialogue doing nothing to elevate it. Lyrics such as “When will come the day that I set myself free,” “I am nothing if I lose you” and “Take my hand I’ll take yours/We’ll walk this road together” certainly get the point across, but lack the poetry that could really enhance this enchanted tale.
Why Annabella and Lorenzo fall for each other, and why Valentina fights Annabella so desperately for him are not really explained. But when love is declared it requires song. And therein lies the recommendation of this otherwise not-so-remarkable-but-does-the-trick, magic-themed musical.
The songs. Oh, the songs. They’re sensational. Comprising of soaring operatic ballads, powerful throw-downs of seduction and playful indie-folk ditties, Sam Johnides and Tony Gonzalez’s often haunting and lush melodies are truly magnificent, as if Evanescence had penned a starry-eyed, gothic Broadway musical.
The entire cast gives respectable performances seasoned with flair and sentiment, but truly ascend when allowed to show off their vocal-chops — with not a single weak link in the bunch. Amanda Rae Troisi, November Christine and John Haukoos make for playful marionettes as well as various townsfolk. Special snaps in particular to Kimberly Hessler as the Disney princess-sweet Annabella, powerhouse belter (if not typical leading-man) Tony Gonzalez as Lorenzo and Melinda Ehrlich as fiery seductress Valentina.
Dancing is spirited and well-executed under the choreography of Danielle Janco. Costumes (uncredited) are period-specific. Set design (uncredited) is subdued and woodsy. Make-up by Ioanna Sourmeli is creative and laudable. And lighting design by Carol Vaness and Zach Laws is effective and mood-setting.
Music, lyrics and book by Sam Johnides and Tony Gonzalez.
Zach Laws is assistant director. Sam Johnides is musical director. Scott Trimble, Jonathan Gonzalez, Eddie and Kathy Keating Rhodes are producers.
With a bit of tweaking to book and lyrics, The Sam and Tony Show’s “Annabella” could go on to great success. If anything, Johnides and Gonzalez prove they’re melodic forces with which to be reckoned.