An ever-charming orphan
The theater staple 'Annie' is still going strong at Palo Alto Players
If you're a musical-theater nerd — er, connoisseur? — like me, you're probably very familiar with "Annie."
In case you aren't: It's the musical based on the comic strip "Little Orphan Annie" and follows the adventures of the titular plucky orphan, her faithful mutt Sandy and her rich benefactor Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks in 1930s New York City.
The play is a community-theater staple and for good reasons. Its heartwarming story, catchy music and kid-friendly material (along with its plethora of roles for young actors) make it a perennially pleasant choice since the 1970s. Palo Alto Players' current production is no exception.
Set in the Big Apple during the Great Depression, "Annie" tells the tale of an 11-year-old optimist (Carley Gilbert), who refuses to give up on her dream of escaping the the horrors of the orphanage run by the villainous Miss Hannigan (Raegena Raymond) and finding her real parents. Meanwhile, capitalist billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Russ Bohard) and his kindly secretary Grace (Jen Wheatonfox) decide to take Annie under their wealthy wings. This is in between their talks with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Daniel Joseph), who's grappling with the grim state of the nation.
A flock of winsome orphans, Warbucks' devoted servants, Hannigan's shady brother Rooster (Danny Martin), and everyday New Yorkers round out the cast.
The score, which successfully imitates period-appropriate jazzy tunes, is full of hits, including: the show stopper "Tomorrow" (surely the song that launched a thousand ill-fated audition routines), "Maybe," "Easy Street," "Hard Knock Life" (covered by rapper Jay-Z) and my favorite, the relentlessly upbeat "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile." Though I've heard them many times, I still tapped my toes faithfully throughout, enjoying the lesser-known tunes just as much as the classics. In fact, it's the rare soundtrack in which every song is a winner.
The Players version is not without flaws musically. The generally good orchestra had a few brass-section issues, and star Gilbert, while charming, had some trouble hitting her high notes during my viewing. The group harmonies, too, were sometimes off — especially disappointing during the Boylan Sisters' song, which should soar with Andrews Sisters-style crooning.
On the other hand, adult leads Raymond, Bohard, Wheatonfox and Martin all were in marvelous voice and inhabited their parts with just the right comedic and heartfelt touches. I've heard better FDR impressions, but Joseph still earned plenty of chuckles in his good-natured presidential role.
I must admit I was particularly excited to find out what sort of dog would be playing Annie's canine companion, Sandy. In this case it's a burly, bear-like fellow called Spencer (the pet of actor Steve Thannisch, who plays a policeman) in a reduced part. He made up for his apparent stage fright with cuteness, wagging his tail enthusiastically whenever Thannisch was on stage. Also adorable was Zoe Wheatonfox as Molly, the little orphan with a big attitude.
Sets by Patrick Klein, choreography by director Jeanne Batacan-Harper and costumes by Mary Cravens serve their purposes to fine effect. But in this production it's all about the sweet, schmaltzy-in-a-good-way story (by Thomas Meehan) and songs (by Charles Strouse, who also composed the music of "Bye Bye Birdie"), which is as it should be.
The play, with its clever references to 1930s American politics and history (today's Occupy Wall Street protestors can no doubt relate to the folks languishing in "Hooverville" shanty towns), along with its irrepressible optimism and heart, appeals to nostalgic adults as well as being a perfect pick for introducing kids to the world of Broadway.
It's been delighting audiences for more than 30 years. Judging by the many children in the audience, including several dressed in red "Annie" outfits, it will continue to be popular with generations today and, if you'll pardon the pun, tomorrow.
What: The musical "Annie," presented by Palo Alto Players
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through May 13, with shows Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $32.
Info: Go to paplayers.org or call 650-329-0891.