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Review: ‘Annie’ at the Walnut Street Theatre

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The sun’ll come out tomorrow
Bet your bottom dollar that
Tomorrow there’ll be sun….

Those familiar lyrics seem fresher than ever in Walnut Street Theatre’s new production of Annie. With its book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin, Annie is a musical full of optimism, hope and humor. Brimming with enthusiastically performed catchy tunes, WST’s Annie is a trip down memory lane for most born before 1970, and makes everyone feel like a kid again!

Paul Schoeffler, Tahlia Ellie, and Rebecca Robbins. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Paul Schoeffler, Tahlia Ellie, and Rebecca Robbins. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Annie first landed on Broadway in 1977 – and with its high-spirited singing and dancing, not to mention a cast featuring children and a dog, the musical ran for six years (a record at the time for its venue). It was nominated for several Tony Awards and won for Best Musical, among others. It has lived on in film, tours and stage revivals ever since. Annie was, and still is, an entertaining and heartwarming show, based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray.

WST wisely opens its production of Annie just in time for the holidays and it has all the substance and trimmings to be a blockbuster hit. Under the direction of Glenn Casale, a luminous cast delivers a top notch production. Tahlia Ellie (weekdays) and Jenna Seasholtz (weekends) alternate as Annie; I saw Ellie in the role, and she sang in a strong and powerful voice for her age. She has a glowing stage presence and is a promising talent.

Mary Martello is hilarious as Miss Hannigan, the alcoholic who runs the city orphanage and doesn’t like children. Martello deftly wields a flexible voice and body to bring the drunken villain to life. As Oliver Warbucks, Paul Schoeffler is a charmer. A billionaire who initially is presented as a workaholic with time for nothing but amassing more money, Warbucks quickly transforms into a loving father figure once he meets Annie and the quest to adopt her begins.

Mary Martello. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Mary Martello. Photo by Mark Garvin.

But it’s not that easy to just sign the papers! Rooster (Christopher Sutton), Miss Hannigan’s wayward brother, has just been released from prison. He and his lady sidekick, Lily (Lyn Philistine), devise a plan that threatens Annie’s adoption and future happiness. Rebecca Robbins demands attention as Grace Farrell, Warbucks’ secretary, with her beautiful and expertly produced lyrical voice. Ellie Biron as Molly, the youngest orphan, is adorable and is a bright little actor to watch out for.

The set design by Robert Andrew Kovach, lighting design by Paul Black and sound by Ed Chapman are pleasing to the eyes and ears and serve the action well. The action moves from the orphanage to the streets of Manhattan, from Warbucks’ elegantly decorated mansion to the White House. The musical takes place in 1933, and the costumes by Mary Folino are significant since they help establish the time period. The orphan children are dressed in worn clothing, in contrast to the spiffy uniforms of Warbucks’ staff.

It is hard to pick favorite scenes or numbers since Annie has so many remarkable and memorable ones. They just keep coming one after the other! All of the songs are well-sung and executed, and the pace moves appropriately fast. John Daniels is in charge of musical and vocal direction, and conducts the live orchestra. The choreography by Michelle Gaudette is representative of the time period and age-appropriate for the children. Outstanding numbers include the reprise of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” by the orphans, “Tomorrow” (reprise at the White House), “Easy Street,” “Something Was Missing,” and “I Don’t Need Anything But You.”

Both the children and adult ensembles are impressive. In “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” the girls are able to show off without Annie. They sing some delightful little solos with arresting voices (especially considering their ages) and their dance routine includes some acrobatics. The members of the adult ensemble all play multiple roles; their voices work together gracefully and they sound marvelous throughout the evening. In the White House scene, the reprise of “Tomorrow,” Dan Schiff interprets President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Inspired by Annie, he and his staff sing and show that optimism goes a long way and that there is always hope. In “Easy Street” the three villians, Miss Hannigan, Rooster and Lily join forces. They ham it up as they whine and commiserate about their sad fates using considerable slapstick in their song and dance.

Where both Schoeffler (Warbucks) and Ellie (Annie) particularly shine are in their scenes together. They exude a sweet father and daughter chemistry. This connection is touching and also enhances their singing and dancing. In “Something Was Missing,” Warbucks tenderly sings to Annie and explains what he needed in his life, and in “I Don’t Need Anything But You” everyone lets loose in this upbeat and splendid celebration. Adding to all this cuteness and sentimentality is Sunny, who plays Sandy, Annie’s dog.

Annie is a must-see for all this holiday season. Children will revel in seeing the little girls and the dog onstage. Older adults will enjoy hearing the familiar songs and the jokes, and newcomers will be introduced to this fine and ever-popular musical from the 1970s.

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.

Sunny (as Sandy) and Tahlia Ellie. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Sunny (as Sandy) and Tahlia Ellie. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Annie plays through January 7, 2018 at the Walnut Street Theatre – 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 574-3550, or purchase them online.

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