Leapin’ lizards! Annie’s back in town! Charles Strouse’s and Martin Charnin’s Tony Award-winning 1977 hit Broadway musical, currently playing at the Olney Theatre Center in suburban Maryland, is a hands-down holiday treat for the entire family.
Based loosely on Harold Gray’s depression-era newspaper comic strip, Little Orphan Annie, the musical tells the rags-riches-story of a feisty, red-headed orphan (Caitlin Deerin) who manages to escape an oppressive New York city orphanage—run by the dreadful Miss Hannigan (Channez McQuay)—and end up as the honored Christmas guest of fabulously wealthy industrial tycoon Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks (George Dvorsky).
Things are looking up for Annie, and even her lovable pet Sandy (Abby the Dog) until Miss Hannigan’s evil brother Rooster (Bobby Smith) and his moll (Jenna Sokolowski) burst upon the scene with a plan to ruin Christmas at the Warbucks’ by scamming the billionaire and making off with the read-headed tyke who’s already won the hearts of the industrialist’s entire household staff, led by Oliver’s Girl Friday, Grace Farrell (Carrie A. Johnson).
But not to worry. President Roosevelt (Rob McQuay) and the FBI instantly rush onto the scene to save the day, and happiness quickly ensues amidst the glitter of Christmas lights. Gosh darn it. Who knew the Washington bureaucracy was once that efficient?
Funny thing is, the comics creator had no use for Franklin Roosevelt and despised FDR’s New Deal. Both Gray’s self-made industrialist Warbucks—whose name suggests the source of his wealth—and the extraordinarily self-reliant orphan he adopts were the cartoonist’s Horatio Alger-style reply to the new deal.
But what the heck? The musical version of Gray’s long-running comic is ultimately big-hearted bi-partisan fun with a wink and a smile at both sides of the aisle. Plus, Olney’s timing of this production is as canny as it is savvy. With its crackerjack cast of energetic singers and dancers and its bright mood of optimism even given its setting during the Great Depression, this production, like the Shirley Temple films of the 1930s, is just the kind of uplifting entertainment we all need this holiday season to help us muddle through our own parallel universe.
While Annie boasts only two truly memorable songs—“Hard-Knock Life” and Annie’s signature tune and hymn to optimism, “Tomorrow”–the music is light and bright throughout, particularly the production number “NYC,” and the funny, sleazy “Easy Street.”
The entire cast seemed relaxed and confident during Saturday’s official opening-night performance, due at least in part to the sure handed direction of Mark Waldrop. As a result, the ensemble mounted an easy-to-listen-to show that appealed to all age groups in an audience that ranged from old-timers–who probably enjoyed the original Annie comic strips as young tykes–to little kids. Some of these youngsters may have been attending their very first show this weekend, and they watched with rapt delight.
The cast in this production was unbelievably good, from the stars right down to the smaller walk-ons.
Caitlin Deerin was a spunky, self-assured, yet occasionally vulnerable Annie, a little girl who’s pretty sure of herself in a tough world but who still wants someone to love her.
And George Dvorsky’s Daddy Warbucks is just the guy. He’s almost a caricature of the driving capitalist until Annie touches his heart, forcing him to remember his own tough childhood as well as the lives of workers in need. Dvorsky lends real character to the part while contributing an astonishingly robust baritone voice that’s capable of both power and nuance. He singlehandedly transformed one of the show’s lesser-regarded songs, “Something Was Missing,” into the most poignant moment in the show.
On the other hand, Channez McQuay’s rowdy, amoral Miss Hannigan is hilariously evil, a bit like Cruella Deville on steroids. Loud, brassy, and with a piercing Broadway voice that might’ve set Ethel Merman back on her heels, this is a Miss Hannigan that makes you want to laugh and hiss at the same time. McQuay overacts outrageously—and makes it work. She is the comic heart of the show.
As Rooster and Lily St. Regis, Miss Hannigan’s eventual partners in crime, Bobby Smith and Jenna Sokolowski turn in sterling performances in their small but key roles. Clad in an outrageous pinstripe suit, Smith’s engaging comic shtick and punchy vocals are essential to the production. Add in Sokolowski’s brash voice and Channez McQuay’s big one, and you have a trio that instantly renders their trio, “Easy Street,” the funniest vocal in the show.
In the small but key role of Grace Farrell, Carrie A. Johnson zeroes in on the essence of her character who’s both the crisply efficient administrative assistant of America’s richest man and a warm-hearted do-gooder at the same time with a dash of “mom” thrown in.
Kudos as well for yet smaller roles. These include Andrew Sonntag’s obnoxious announcer Bert Healy and his stiff, officious portrayal of Harold Ickes (the Elder); Rob McQuay’s breezily self-assured, chainsmoking FDR; and James’ Konichek’s stiff but rubbery-faced butler Drake.
A salute as well to Miss Hennigan’s orphan-girl charges. Saturday’s opening night cast (two casts of orphans alternate performances) had the time of their collective lives, but knew their parts, blocking, singing, and dance moves uncommonly well with just enough graceful gaucherie to remind us that they’re, well, still little girls.
The small pit orchestra, augmented by keyboards, performed well under the direction of Christopher Youstra, always accompanying the cast and never overshadowing them. The choreography by Tara Jeanne Vallee was smooth, logical, and organic to the action of the show. And Ming Cho Lee’s surprisingly elaborate sets gave the entire production a feeling of understated richness and elegance.
And, oh yes, lest we forget, a big, hearty “Arf!” to Abby the Dog’s elegant Sandy, a role that’s shared on alternate nights with Tanner the Dog.
Negatives? There was actually very little to complain about on opening night, save for a sound system that could still use a touch of fine-tuning, particularly with an eye on better reproducing some of the lyrics in the orphans’ production numbers. Otherwise, this production is good to go, as polished as anything we’ve seen during this already performance-packed fall DC theater season.
Book by Thomas Meehan
Music by Charles Strouse . Lyrics by Martin Charnin
Directed by Mark Waldrop
Choreography by Jeanne Vallee
Musical Director by Christopher Youstra
Produced by Olney Theatre Company
Reviewed by Terry Ponick