Yes, we’re polarized and angry, uncertain about the future, defensive about our politics, but hey! The sun’ll come out tomorrow!
Maybe that sounds like impossible optimism, or “an unstoppable sunshine steamroller” as Ben Brantley called it, but “Annie” has not just survived, it’s thrived because people would rather feel good than bad. It’s almost that simple.
Riverside Center for the Performing Arts welcomes this durable piece of musical theatre to its 22nd season, and it doesn’t disappoint. The little red-headed orphan who entertained our parents and grandparents through the 1920s, the Great Depression, and WWII has had a long run. Based on “Little Orphan Annie”, the comic strip by Harold Gray, “Annie” is the 1977 Broadway musical that snapped up seven Tony Awards and ran for six years before spawning a few less memorable films as well as three Broadway revivals.
A large and well-meshed cast featuring the hilarious and endlessly watchable Sally Struthers plays like a gift on this stage, and Patrick A’Hearn directs his talented ensemble with clarity and inventiveness.
I’ll admit to getting restless during the long overtures of many musicals with nothing to watch but lowered curtains and the orchestra plucking and sawing away. No such problem here. Mr. A’Hearn opens with full screen black and white newsreel photos of New York City in the time period of our interest – the 1930s. This devise is revived, but not overused, in several scenes that represent traveling through the city, sitting in a movie theatre, or arriving at destinations far from the orphanage.
The basic premise: A plucky orphan girl of eleven believes that someday her parents will come back to claim her and manages to escape the harsh, heavy-drinking Miss Hannigan (who has, with bureaucratic perversity, been made head of the orphanage) to search for them. Tables turn, as they must, and the billionaire “Daddy” Warbucks wants to adopt her, but not before two frauds show up claiming to be her ‘real’ parents – as well as the generous reward. But have no fear – every ‘hard-knock’ life has a tomorrow, and this is musical theatre where everyone is happy at the end, except our bad guys, who get what’s comin’ to ‘em – and that makes us happy, too.
This is a sizable cast, but certain players require special mention.
Kylee Hope Geraci as Annie brings an adult-sized poise, confidence, and vocal range to her role. Sure of herself with the grown-up characters as well as her orphan peers (“It’s the Hard Knock Life”), she has the right combination of strength and vulnerability to get us on her side. If only one song belongs to her, it’s “Tomorrow”, a tune that, sweet though it is, has invited some good natured derision over the years for its indefatigable hopefulness.
Christopher Sanders as “Daddy” Warbucks, looms over her as both physical presence and a symbol of the glittering life she is about to sample, but there is never a sense of the pair being mis-matched. Their performance together with the ensemble in “N.Y.C.” is one of those uplifting moments that forgets all about “hard knocks” and bread lines.
Anyone who has seen Sally Struthers in her appearances on this stage can not doubt why she was cast as Miss Hannigan. Her comic genius carries the scenes, and her whiskey-voiced performance of “Little Girls” is worth the price of admission. Miss Hannigan seems to suffer a permanent hangover, but she thinks clearly enough when the subject is how to defraud Oliver Warbucks – a prospect that introduces two of my favorite characters.
PJ Freebourn as the rubbery con artist, Rooster Hannigan, and Gabrielle Donadio as Lily, his partner in crime, are a hoot and a half. Their utterly conscienceless scheme plotted with Miss Hannigan is summed up in the jaunty, vaudeville flavored “Easy Street”.
A few resourceful actors juggle three or four separate roles, among them Stephen Sorrentino, the popular Kathy Halenda, Ian Lane, and Alan Hoffman, who also appears as F.D.R. And what would “Annie” be without Sandy? Kudos to either Sir Gustafson Lyle Doolittle (a Goldendoodle) or Sir Mac Allan Burch Esq. (we’re not sure which one on our night) for the strenuous task of walking on stage and looking adorable.
This is not a show of “pretty” voices. Singing is strong, together, and ultra-bright – which seems to fit the overall tone of gosh-darned enthusiasm supported by Carson Eubanks’ seven- piece orchestra.
Scene design by Frank Foster aided by Weston Corey’s lights gives us a specifically rendered sense of place, beginning with the orphanage, and swiftly converts to Oliver Warbuck’s richly appointed mansion complete with crystal chandelier and sweeping staircase. The delicate bit of snowfall at the end is a visual dessert.
So there it is – a solid rendering of an old, but not overdone, favorite, wisely kept in 1933 and still overflowing with buoyancy and good feelings. Who couldn’t use a little bit of that?
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.