The story of Little Orphan Annie has been a part of popular American culture for nearly 100 years, from comic strips to radio programs, Broadway and the Silver Screen. Practically anyone alive who grew up in this culture has been exposed to the eternally optimistic little girl who, though penniless and parentless with a hard-drinking child-hating orphanage den mother and an awfully tough cohort of orphans as her posse, insists the sun will come out tomorrow.
She’s spunky, plucky, embodies the rags-to-riches American Dream (amid the Great Depression slums of New York City, no less) and is adorable — even moreso with a scruffy, Sandy-haired stray dog as her sidekick.
The original Broadway production opened in 1977, ran for six years, and won a Tony for Best Musical. It’s been revived on Broadway and the West End and produced in high schools around the country countless times since then. If not for that, then the success of the 1982 movie starring Carol Burnett makes it so any member of Generation X or older could belt out at least a few bars of “Tomorrow” or “Hard Knock Life” on cue.
It’s not a particularly poignant moment to produce this borderline saccharine, well-worn and well-loved show, but it remains beloved, and is light, crowd-pleasing fare at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre.
Director and Choreographer Joe Niesen has put together a fine cast and crew to produce a joyful, dramatic, family-friendly show true to the spirit and form of the original.
With cutouts of the New York City skyline and faux exposed-brick set pieces to signify the destitution of 1930s slums and street scenes, the opulence of the reds and golds and cascading staircases of Oliver Warbucks’ mansion really pop and illustrate the dramatic arc of the story. Scenic Designer Tyler M. Perry’s work is impressive, and Stephen Sakowski’s lights along with Lisa Borton’s costumes complement the dramatic set, and help bring to life the somewhat subtle cartoonish quality of the show visually.
The actors’ performances, too, come across along the same lines, with a larger-than-life quality that can feel overly put on at times, but ultimately works for the show concept. Most notably, Hannah Johnson is a charming Annie, equal parts spunk, pluck and sweetness, and she has a powerful young voice that grows with confidence as the shows progresses. At times she seems to ham it up for the audience by striking a pose with a cheesy grin or other huge gesture, and it works.
And the nine other little girl orphans are terrific, too, especially darling Ellie Brower as Molly, the littlest one. Niesen gives them cute and often percussive choreography they perform with conviction in big numbers such as “Hard Knock Life” in which they stomp and use metal buckets with wooden brushes to help create the music as well as the movement.
It’s all made bigger by the excellent 15-piece orchestra beautifully led by Music Director Phil DeYoung.
Other notable performances include Susan Ericksen as a hilarious drunk and disorderly villainous Miss Hannigan, an impressive belter with a lovely vibrato; Tom Bengston’s bold and compassionate Oliver Warbucks; Kristina Kastrinelis’s sweet Grace; Skye Edwards’ scheming Rooster who dances like a dream; and Chip DuFord’s commanding yet very human FDR. Nikki Savitt as Mrs. Pugh and Olivia Lehnertz would do well to pull back on the cartoonish upstaging qualities they summon for their characters, but overall this is a well-directed ensemble.
For some, Annie with her dimples and proclamations of “Leapin’ lizards!”, would be just as well left in the past; however, others, especially those who know and love the adorable little girls (and scruffy dog) on stage, this production — the finest so far this season at HSRT — is a delight.
141 E. 12th., Holland
July 7-August 12