'Annie' gets Olney in the holiday mood

Bright and light Strouse and Charnin musical is the perfect family Christmas gift. Photo: Jeet Heer

Olney, MD – Now playing on the newish “Mainstage” of Maryland’s venerable Olney Theatre Center, Annie—Charles Strouse’s and Martin Charnin’s Tony Award-winning 1977 hit Broadway will prove just the ticket for families seeking an alternative to overdone Christmas Season favorites like the Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol.

Based loosely on the long running and recently terminated (June 2010) Harold Gray comic strip, Annie, the musical, revises and re-tells the secret origins of an irrepressible red-headed orphan (Caitlin Deerin) who lives New York during the Great Depression. Annie escapes Miss Hannigan’s (Channez McQuay’s) gloomy, city-run orphanage (more government efficiency!) and lucks out by getting adopted by rags-to-riches robber baron Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks (George Dvorsky).

'Annie' reissued comic strips.

Cover image. First volume of reissued
‘Little Orphan Annie’ comic strips.
Edited by Jeet Heer.

Things look good for Annie and her adopted dog Sandy (Abby the Dog—ARF!). But that’s before Miss Hannigan’s rotten brother Rooster (Bobby Smith) and his latest babe, Lily (Jenna Sokolowski) concoct a scheme to ruin Christmas at the Warbucks’ by claiming to be Annie’s long-lost parental units. They’re foiled in the end by Oliver’s executive assistant, Grace Farrell (Carrie A. Johnson). Grace, unfortunately, doesn’t get a marriage proposal out of this as the metaphorical curtain descends. (But then, Oliver is probably working on the pre-nup.) But that’s a minor detail.

Of course, Grace is not alone in her heroics. She’s aided and abetted by none other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Rob McQuay) and the FBI who personally intervene to help Oliver and Co. save the day—and Annie. Given that Oliver is a staunch Republican, this gives an entirely new meaning to the term “progressive politics.” President Obama, take heed.

Olney—which has been having its fiscal problems of late—was uncommonly prescient in its scheduling of this bubbly, positive musical during the 2010 holiday season. With its almost hyperactive cast of fine singers and dancers and its sunny mood of Depression Era optimism, this production is almost guaranteed to put most audiences in a better holiday mood, given our own era’s stark parallels with the 1930s.

While Annie boasts only two truly memorable songs—“Hard-Knock Life” and Annie’s signature tune and hymn to optimism, “Tomorrow”—the music is bouncy and enjoyable throughout, helped out by Thomas Meehan’s only slightly improbable book. The cast in this production was warm and enthusiastic, from the stars right down to the smaller walk-ons, all under the able direction of Mark Waldrop.

Caitlin Deerin and Abby the Dog.

Annie (Caitlin Deerin) and Sandy
(Abby the Dog) light up the Great Depression
with a little bit of optimism.
(Photo credit: Sam Barouh.)

Caitlin Deerin is the perfect, spunky Annie, a born optimist who only lacks a little love (and a dog) to turn her downtrodden life around. Her Broadway-style vocals are fine and clear and her diction is amazingly clear.

George Dvorsky’s Daddy Warbucks is the ideal capitalist with a heart of gold, a Warren Buffett from the right side of the aisle. Annie opens up the human being inside of him, reminding him of his own rags-to-riches rise to success. Mr. Dvorsky’s elegant baritone transformed one of the show’s lightly-regarded songs, “Something Was Missing,” into the emotional high point of the evening.

Channez McQuay’s rowdy, amoral Miss Hannigan is over-the-top evil. But that’s what you want in a comic strip-based musical. With her raucous, Ethel Mermen-like delivery, she offers the perfect mixture of villainy and comedy.

As Rooster and Lily, Bobby Smith and Jenna Sokolowski turn in sterling performances in small but key roles. Their trio with Miss Hannigan, “Easy Street,” is the comic hit of this production. 

As Grace Farrell, Carrie A. Johnson is brittle, proper, understated, but radiates more than enough good to overcome Miss Hannigan’s triumvirate of evil. Ms. Johnson doesn’t get a lot of vocals in the show, but her silvery soprano is always on target when she gets a chance to shine.

As for the smaller roles, hat tips go to Andrew Sonntag’s characters, the obnoxious announcer Bert Healy and the stiff Harold Ickes (the Elder); Rob McQuay’s breezy FDR; and James’ Konichek’s efficient butler Drake. A salute as well to Annie’s high-spirited fellow orphans, played in this production by alternating platoons of talented young ladies.

The small pit orchestra, although a bit undersized, provided crisp accompaniment under the baton of Christopher Youstra. Tara Jeanne Vallee’s choreography was tight yet moderately freeform, appropriate to a show where orphans and lower class types predominate. And Ming Cho Lee’s imaginative sets, alternating the slums of New York with Daddy’s opulent mansion, captured the have and have not spirit of the era.

Rating: *** (Three stars.)

Olney’s production of Annie runs through early January. For tickets and information, click here.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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