The girls have got this.
Even in a municipal home where they do sweatshop work under a tipsy tyrant by the name of Miss Hannigan, pre-adolescents Annie, Pepper, Molly, Duffy and their fellow orphans maintain their spunk, courage and sense of mischief. Those traits, plus a surplus of cuteness, will help them as they grow in a cruel world.
The same traits also give a nice glow to the Ordway Center’s revival of “Annie,” the 41-year-old musical by Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin that opened Friday in St. Paul. A musical for troubled times, “Annie” is set during the Great Depression, another era when the world felt unmoored. Its cast of relatable characters — orphans, grifters and the wealthy — are at different stations on “Easy Street.”
Even though the production is not the lush, pull-out-all-stops offering we have come to expect from the Ordway at the holidays, it’s still a winner with plenty of charm, including a dog that barks in rhythm, if not in tune, with the orchestra. Much of the credit goes to director Austene Van, who maximizes the little moments in her stylish, very funny production. Van brings a lot of new color, including some nontraditional casting, to this show. Her players boast individual strengths, even if their chemistry was not altogether there on opening night.
The 15-piece orchestra, conducted energetically by Jeff Rizzo, also could use a few more instruments. The sound was noticeably thin at the outset of the show, though it sounded fuller and more robust as the evening wore on.
Still, this “Annie” has a lot to recommend it, including some idiosyncratic and funny choreography by Lewis Whitlock III. And of course there are lots of great songs, from “Hard Knock Life” to “I Don’t Need Anything But You,” delivered with beauty and strength.
As the mopheaded Annie, Carly Gendell is a font of hard-fought optimism on “Tomorrow.” Bringing determination and moxie to the role, this self-possessed young actor can go toe-to-toe with the adults in the talented cast. That includes Michele Ragusa, woozily witty as Miss Hannigan, who buries her frustrations in the bottle and who takes out her aches on the poor wretches she commands. Britton Smith and Cat Brindisi are devilishly delicious as Rooster Hannigan and Lily St. Regis, a pair of grifters on the prowl. They literally quiver with joy at the thought of swindling the industrial magnate Daddy Warbucks.
Lance Roberts negotiates the role of Warbucks with aplomb. This is a character who moves through the world like a jaunty colossus, giving instructions to the president of the United States while attended by a huge household staff who hope some of his wealth will trickle down. But when Annie is selected to be his guest for Christmas, her unexpected might throws him off his rhythm. Roberts shows all of this in his gestures, his firm-to-not-so-sure cadences, and in the feelings that show on his face as she helps him to become more human.
Ann Michels brings cool wit to the role of Warbucks’ assistant Grace Farrell.
Van’s gorgeous production, with scenic elements based on the original design by Ming Cho Lee, resonates not just because it is entertaining, but because it shows a dislocated society where needs are met with a human response. The world could use more billionaires and orphans dancing and singing together at the holidays.
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