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REVIEW: Orphan-Strong Annie (Ordway)

The cast of the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts’ production of Annie. Photo by Rich Ryan.

There was a strong current of energy in the air at the Ordway last night for the press opening of Annie. As streams of parents and younger children stepped in from the cold outdoors, faces lit up at the grandeur of the warmly lit lobby. Children dashed to the Christmas tree, babbled at the holiday decorations, and posed for the numerous photo backdrops setup. To the regular theatregoer, these may be taken for granted, but to young eyes they are clearly enchanting to discover.

The presidential cabinet: Kersten Rodau, Adam Qualls, Randy Schmeling, Bill Scharpen, Carl Schoenborn, and Charles Fraser in Annie. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Enchanting is a fair adjective for Annie in general, a musical whose stage and film versions are ensconced in many people’s childhood and child-raising experiences. The show is frequently commented on, referenced, and parodied in pop culture – a sign of its almost inescapable ubiquity. The use of nontraditional casting and a few nods to the present day notwithstanding, the Ordway’s production doesn’t rock that boat. Come see the show and you’ll see the humorous adventures of the titular redheaded girl (Carly Gendell), a band of cute orphans, and a few adults rocking the growly and cartoony evil bent.

A special audience favorite of the evening was the character of Sandy the Dog, whose every appearance brought “awws” and murmurs of delight from the audience, especially when she barks in time with the music. Fittingly, Sandy is played by Marti, a Golden Retriever-Chow mix who was herself adopted from a shelter before embarking on a stage and film career. The show lobby includes displays on adoption by Ampersand Families, and a pro-adoption video plays in the Music Theater before the Act II curtain.

The whole production has a highly stylized feel, as accented by the many skewed and painted backdrops (after the original scenic designs by Ming Cho Lee) and vaudevillian acting. It’s hard to imagine some of the little touches and ways that scenes are played out appearing on stage even five years ago, but Austen Van’s direction makes them work cohesively and without undue distraction. (A throwaway physical gag about manspreading was an instant hit with the audience, for example.)

It is very true that productions of Annie rest greatly on the abilities of its child actors. For this production, the Ordway has assembled a fine team of orphans, led by Carly Gendell as Annie during the evening performances (Lillian Hochman at matinees). They are, arguably, excessively cute – which is rather the point – especially during the show-within-a-show parody of “Fully Dressed”. Scene-stealing moments abound with this ensemble of talented young actresses like Valerie Wick (recently seen in CTC’s The Abominables), Josie Turk (recently seen in the Ordway’s Jesus Christ Superstar), and Olive Middleton. If there’s any justice in the theatre world, local playwrights and composers will start writing material to feature these performers more in the coming years.

Lillian Hochman plays Annie at the Ordway’s matinee performances. Photo by Rich Ryan.

While there is certainly a bedrock of universal human longing for love and acceptance in songs like “Tomorrow”, Annie is fundamentally a comedy. Lance Roberts hams it up as Daddy Warbucks with an energetic performance shaded by elegant pathos is songs like “Something was Missing”. The comic trio “Easy Street” is one of the highlights of Act I, featuring deliciously scene-chewing cartoon villainy by Lily (Cat Brindisi), Miss Hannigan (Michele Ragusa), and Rooster (Britton Smith). There’s also much humor in the glares that Miss Hannigan (Michele Ragusa) and Grace Farrell (Ann Michels) throw at each other.

Musically speaking, the pit orchestra is a bit slim; the 15-player ensemble credited in the program is noticeably smaller than that called for in the 2004 version of the score. For a show that has an extended overture and a long entr’acte, this difference was important: significant passages sounded too thin and exposed. A space with the size and acoustics of the Ordway really does demand a richer soundscape, whatever amplification and keyboard patches are employed.

At the end of the day, Annie is not the high-protein steak dinner of deep theatrical experiences. What the Ordway’s production serves, however, is a very pleasant pastry buffet that makes for a very fun evening.

Lily (Cat Brindisi), Miss Hannigan (Michele Ragusa), and Rooster (Britton Smith) plot how to get to Easy Street. In accordance with the show’s nontraditional casting, Miss Hannigan and Rooster are siblings. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Annie plays at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in Saint Paul, MN through December 31, 2017.

Basil Considine