The musical Annie is 40 years old this year, and thanks to the Olney Theatre Center’s cheerful new production, a whole new generation of theater goers will get the chance to travel back in time to Depression-era New York City, for the heart-warming tale of the world’s most optimistic orphan. With a book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse, direction by Jason King Jones, and choreography by Rachel Leigh Dolan, this production of Annie stays true to the original, delivering a solid, if not groundbreaking, performance perfect for first timers and those wishing to relive the magic of their first time.
The message of Annie—that there are always better times ahead (virtually everyone knows the lyrics from Annie’s theme song, “Tomorrow,”)—is both timeless and timely, and the show is the perfect family outing for the holiday season. A recent film updated the setting of the story to current day New York City, but I prefer the depression-era original, which lends itself to interesting period costumes, designed by Seth M. Gilbert, and beautiful scenery by Daniel Ettinger. The Olney production provides some context for this setting by accompanying the overture with photos and information about the hardships of the Depression. The playbill itself also contains a context guide that parents can use to help their children understand how difficult times were for people in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
The cast of Annie includes well-known local actors such as Patricia Hurley (formerly seen as Mary Poppins in Olney’s production of the same name) as Grace Farrell, Kevin McAllister (formerly seen in Olney’s Cinderella) as Oliver Warbucks, and Rachel Zampelli (recently seen in Olney’s Sweeney Todd and Evita) as the beleaguered Miss Hannigan. Rob McQuay delighted the audience with his portrayal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dani Stoller and Tony Award-winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia brought criminals Lily and Rooster to life.
And, of course, the show features a cadre of wonderful child actresses as the title character and her orphan friends. Noelle Robinson is charming as Annie with a voice that easily fills up the theater. The orphans are funny and sweet and their version of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” was my favorite song in the show. The orphans sang and danced to perfection in this number, really having the chance to show off their talents.
Kevin McAllister as Daddy Warbucks, the stern businessman who loses his heart to the little orphan, is perfection. His voice, both speaking and singing, is a joy to listen to and he has a natural stage presence that draws your eyes to him on the stage. He obviously has a great rapport with Noelle Robinson, although there seemed to be less connection with Patricia Hurley’s Grace Farrell. For most of the show, I assumed the creative team had decided to remove the romantic relationship between Warbucks and Farrell and then when it appeared at the end, it wasn’t quite as believable as the other character relationships.
Sandy, Annie’s dog, appears briefly in the show and this was the one place where the production seemed less sure of itself. Petey, the dog playing Sandy in the performance I saw, seemed to have a bit of stage fright and Robinson struggled a bit to control his behavior.
The Annie orchestra, led by Christopher Youstra, provided an excellent soundtrack to the story, bringing new life to songs most in the audience have probably heard dozens of times before. No doubt half the audience left the theater with one or more of the songs stuck in their heads.
This holiday season, take someone you love to see the entertaining new production of Annie at Olney Theatre Center. It’s a great way to take a trip back in time.
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.