Little Orphan Annie has, for decades, been the stuff of song and story. The song and the story, however, were finally fused together when Thomas Meehan wrote the book and Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin the music and lyrics for the musical ANNIE, first performed on Broadway in 1977. Playing now at Susquehanna Stage Co., directed by Jason Spickler, this is a version of the musical that, fortuitously, is enjoyable even to those whose children aren't in the show, even to those of us who normally run as far away from this musical as possible. Like fine chocolate, it's not too sweet, with just a trace of dark.
Yes, ANNIE is normally a "love it or hate it" show. And your reviewer is normally in the latter camp, anxious to avoid its usually saccharine adorability. Spickler, however, has kept the sometimes excessive saccharine out, and left us with a show whose content reminds us that love is a wonderful thing... even in a bad economy when you want to argue with the President. In the respect of our current economy and the current economic debates in Washington and at home, ANNIE has the ability to be a cold bucket of water over our heads, reminding us that the economy is cyclical and we've been here before. In respect of events in Connecticut this past week, it may be even more valuable as a catharsis for those feeling pain about the ultimate abuse of a group of young children.
The juvenile lead at Susquehanna Stage is played by alternating actresses, Lauren Elledge some nights (including opening) and Karli Dunn on others. Elledge is a fine young actress who carries her part without forcing it, and has The Edge that many girls who take the part lack. Annie is an adventuress, a daredevil - she persistently escapes from the orphanage, and in the original comics often ducked bullets at home and abroad; she has an edge that Elledge manages to convey in her escapes from Miss Hannigan. Although I was not privileged to see Dunn perform, she's a charming young lady who appears to have that same capacity to do more than be cute and winsome in the signature red and white dress.
Also cutting the usual overly sweet quality is Miss Hannigan herself, Tara Martenis Beitzel. The usual orphanage director is cast as a slight, skinny nervous wreck; Beitzel makes her blowsy, brazen, and bullish, so that the chorus of "I love you, Miss Hannigan" from the orphans is not only more comic than often, but seems to be laid on the back of a menace - her Hannigan is not merely an overworked bureaucrat who has grown to hate little girls, but a force of alcohol-sodden comic malevolence, a fine counterpart to a gangster brother. Her rendition of "Little Girls" is a rip-roaring tirade on the evils of all things small and cute.
Equally fine is Kara Hartman as Grace Farrell, Oliver Warbucks' secretary, who combines motherliness towards Annie with a no-nonsense "shall I call President Roosevelt for you" attitude with Warbucks. In the original comic, Warbucks was married; too often in the musical, Farrell is played primarily as a conspicuous romantic target for Warbucks, but here, her competence is a clear and satisfying characteristic. Additionally, Cari Walker's Lily St. Regis, gangster moll, is perfectly cast as the dumb blonde with a heart of gold coins.
If only all the male characters fared so well. Ron Melleby looks the part as Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks, and he certainly has the presence and the voice for it; however, he seems a bit too soft allover to be the man who made a fortune in munitions in World War One, who in the comics made and lost fortunes repeatedly, and who served as a three-star general in World War Two. The original free-market capitalist warmonger (and very much unlike the musical, no friend to Franklin Roosevelt or the New Deal), he was always a champion of the people, but not of the government. It would help the show if more of that strength, and not just Warbucks' brains and charisma, were evident.
Similarly, Joseph Chubb's Rooster Hannigan is just a bit too savory for an unsavory gangster, a bit too genteel for a man straight out of prison and trying hard to avoid the straight and narrow. Slightly more menace and less charm would be more convincing - although his determination to move up the criminal ladder to achieve financial success is an admirable display of pure greed.
Jackie Johnson's costumes are delightful, the Warbucks staff and the Roxy ushers especially sharp in their various uniforms, and the orphans suitably ragamuffin (including one properly armed with a raccoon cap). Lily St. Regis is smartly overdressed for any occasion, and Annie's transition from orphan to well-dressed to Christmas-party red transitions neatly throughout the show.