Speaking (and Singing) Truth

The famous orphan comes out ahead in the shedd’s production of Annie

After seeing Annie at The Shedd’s Jaqua Concert Hall, “Tomorrow” will be your shower song for many tomorrows to come. You can bet your bottom dollar.

The 1977 Tony-winning musical — with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin and book by Thomas Meehan — is packed with memorable songs that seem to be written in the 1930s, when the show is set. The music is tuneful and the lyrics are appropriately witty or schmaltzy.

As directed by Shedd veteran Ron Daum, Annie is pretty darn irresistible. What’s not to like? A feisty, hopeful little girl backed up by a passel of darling orphans. A greedy orphanage matron. Hilarious swindlers. A dog. A billionaire Republican who cooperates with Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats.

There’s a fantasy for you!

Inspired by Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie comic strip, the musical pits the miseries of the Depression against the optimism and innate goodness of a redheaded sprite who speaks the truth. Ellen Poulsen makes a lively, endearing Annie as she clings to the belief that she will be reunited with her missing parents.

By a great stroke of luck she is chosen to spend two weeks, including Christmas holidays, at the Fifth Avenue home of Oliver Warbucks, played by Lanny Mitchell as a lonely man who overcame enormous obstacles to gain the security of wealth.

With the help of his kind, efficient secretary Grace Farrell (the ever-popular Shirley Andress), Warbucks and Annie quickly bond. Mitchell shines as he leads the others in “N.Y.C.,” the show’s salute to New York, and in his ballad “Something Was Missing.”

Meanwhile, Miss Hannigan, the boozy orphanage matron, is seething with jealousy of Annie’s happy situation. In Lyn Burg’s rip-roaring portrayal, Hannigan expresses emotion with every inch of her body, which seems capable of bending in all directions. She snarls, she roars, she terrifies with her evil eye.

But the orphan girls sometimes manage to push back, as when they operate as a squadron with the aim of stomping on her bunions. From the teeny-tiniest child, Molly (adorable Eliyah Chandler), to the biggest, Duffy (Hannah Ford), as well as Bailey Ubel, Tessa Douangaphaivong, Meridian Hula, Kiko Pyle, Mariah Bailey, Zoe Goings, Josie DeSalvo and Daisy DeSalvo, they sing and dance with charm. However, I couldn’t understand the lyrics of “It’s a Hard-Knock Life.”

That is not a problem with the adult ensemble, a polished group playing as many as four roles each. Think of all those quick costume changes. At one moment they’re homeless people in a Hooverville, then the staff at the Warbucks mansion, then Washington wonks, with Larry Kenton making a charismatic FDR. 

The swindlers who claim to be Annie’s parents, Rooster (Thomas Guastavino) and Lily (Sophia James), are pure pleasure, especially when they bring down the house singing and high-kicking “Easy Street” with Hannigan.

And let’s not forget Sandy, the stray dog played by Kitty, a golden retriever. Kitty is lovely, cuddly and — mostly — performs as expected.

The production values are excellent. As usual, Robert Ashens conducts the orchestra out of sight above the stage. Jamie Parker designed the pleasing costumes. 

The set design by Jim Ralph and Connie Huston features clever, cartoon-like set painting by Huston. I can gladly report that the new system for changing the sets between scenes is working well. The changes are so much quicker than in previous Shedd productions that they may well save 10 to 15 minutes of running time. 

The musical Annie is playing at the Shedd Institute’s Jaqua Concert Hall through Sept. 29; times and tickets at theshedd.org or 541-434-7000.

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