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The Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater’s “Annie & Rose” is a theatrical exploration of two musical theater staples. Through cutting, splicing and – at times – recreating, Katie Birenboim ’16 and Michaela Milgrom ’16 present complicated portraits of the two titular women.

“Annie & Rose” draws from two classics in musical theater, both with strong female leads. “Annie Get Your Gun” spotlights vaudeville at its prime, focusing on the beginning of Annie Oakley’s career and her subsequent success and love life. “Gypsy,” in contrast, takes place when vaudeville is being phased out, focusing on the life and work of the overbearing stage mother Rose and her two daughters.

“Annie & Rose” follows the basic plot structure of each musical, alternating between the songs and scenes of “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Gypsy”. With a few exceptions, the cast is shared between the two plots.

In terms of the roles themselves, “Annie & Rose” is perfectly suited for Birenboim and Milgrom. Birenboim pulls off the backwoods Annie convincingly, and Milgrom’s stellar voice excels in Rose’s many solos.

Other casting is a mixed bag.

Jared Brendon Hopper ’18 gives a spotty performance in the role of Herbie, Rose’s love interest and talent manager. Despite Hopper’s excellent vocals and superb attention to detail in characterization, his performance does very little to materialize the complicated relationship between Rose and Herbie, who are both lovers and business associates. “Annie & Rose” does little justice to Robby Keown ’17, whose blocking and characterizations are clearly contrived and, though Ben Diamond ’19 gets laughs with his performance as the strip club manager Pastey, his other roles fall flat.

One of the greatest shortcomings of “Annie & Rose” is the underuse of strong performers.

Kevin McElwee ’18, a newcomer to the Princeton theater scene, gave strong performances in his admittedly limited roles. Melanie Berman ’18, though given a few good moments on stage, most of which are heightened sexual innuendos, lacks the opportunity to showcase her strong vocal capacity. Most notably, Alex Daniels ’17 and Emily Libresco ’17 are sorely underused in the production, nonetheless stealing the show with their ridiculous stripteases in “Gotta Get a Gimmick.”

Other performers are hardly challenged in the production.

Meagan Raker ’18 gives an excellent performance as June, Rose’s youngest daughter. Yet, her performance is nothing new, only a slight variation on the roles Raker has had in nearly every production she has been a part of at Princeton. “Annie & Rose,” as an educational exploration of two musicals, would have been the perfect opportunity for Raker to undertake a different and more challenging role.

And yet, though few and far between, some actors simply excel in their roles.

Sam Gravitte ’17 gives a stellar performance as Frank, Annie’s love interest and sharpshooting rival. Gravitte fulfills the vocal requirements of the role superbly and nails both the physical and personal characterization of the role.

Most astoundingly, Emma Watkins ’18 gives a stunning performance as Louise, Rose’s eldest and least talented daughter. Watkins pulls of the lanky, uncoordinated Young Louise very well and goes on to give an incredible if not baffling performance in her impromptu strip tease.

Though featuring a number of the most popular songs from each musical, the highlights of “Annie & Rose” are the unique song mixes, when actors sing different songs from the two musicals simultaneously. The mash-ups of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” with “Let Me Entertain You,” “Moonshine Lullaby” with “Little Lamb,” “Sun in the Morning” with “Together Wherever” and “Anything You Can Do” with “Gypsy Strip” reveal the astounding continuities between the two shows.

Perhaps this performance reveals a double-edged sword. In splicing the musicals, Birenboim and Milgrom draw mostly parallels between the two shows. Indeed, the format of “Annie & Rose” reveals that the two musicals, renowned for their strong female leads, are formulaic in nature. In attempting to demonstrate that Annie and Rose are not “archaic,” Birenboim and Milgrom reveal something worse – that the women are just two sides to the same coin, women who use men to move up in their careers and ultimately find themselves trapped between men and career. While one chooses man and the other career, the careers of the two women bear an uncanny resemblance to one another. Both manipulated men to make it to the top and were ultimately more or less unable to make it there.

Though casting is largely a mixed bag, with actors missing the mark or lacking adequate challenge, the content of “Annie & Rose” and, in broad strokes, its performance explores the intersection of womanhood and show business, raising more questions than it seems to answer.

3/5 Paws

Pros: occasional strong performances, excellent thematic exploration

Cons: many contrived and shallow performances

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