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Rags to Riches 

The production of Annie currently on the boards at Le Petit Theatre has no right to be as entertaining as it is. The production is excellent, but who would have imagined that radical John Grimsley would direct this fable of kindhearted capitalism.

It's not all kindhearted. We meet Annie (Madison Kerth) when she"s an inmate at a dismal municipal orphanage that seems haunted by the spirit of Charles Dickens. The tots live in fear of a battle-ax matron named Miss Hannigan, played with gusto by Becky Allen. Annie is the leader among the orphans. When the littlest girl cries out in the middle of the night because she misses her parents, Annie comforts her. We soon realize that all the other girls like Annie and want her approval, even though they pretend not to.

Annie runs away. Not only is she a caring person, she is a daring person. The play takes place during the Great Depression, so the greater world is nearly as dismal as the orphanage. Annie makes friends with a stray dog whom she names Sandy on the spur of the moment in order to convince a cop that she owns the beast and should be allowed to keep it. Together they wander through the urban wilderness of 'Hoovervilles" (shanty towns) and apple vendors. She's determined to find her father and mother, but things don't work out for the child.

As befits an optimistic fantasy, Christmas approaches. A billionaire named Oliver Warbucks (Christopher Bentivegna) sends his secretary Grace (Heidi Jackson) to the orphanage. He wants to give a poor, deprived child the gift of a few weeks of luxury and indulgence. Grace chooses Annie despite Hannigan's efforts to substitute another child " any other child.

The story zooms from the nadir of material comforts to the pinnacle: Warbucks' Fifth Avenue mansion. The stage fills with his staff, all uniformed, obedient and polite under the strict eye of a Major Domo (Bob Edes Jr.). 'I think I'm gonna like it here," sings Annie.

Warbucks is a busy man. He expects to pawn off Annie on his secretary, but Annie wants the boss man's personal attention. The result is that Warbucks falls for the kid in a big way and sets about trying to adopt her. She won't hear of it, however, because she wants to find her real parents. Warbucks vows to make that happen. He even enlists President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Sidney Arroyo) and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover in the quest.

Warbucks offers $50,000 to whomever can prove they are Annie's real parents. Con artists descend on the orphanage like bees to honey. The con artists are none other than Rooster Hannigan, the matron's brother (Richard Arnold) and his girlfriend (Jessie Terrebonne).

The intrigue comes to a boil in the musical melodrama. If the concoction is a bit saccharine at times, like when the orphans sing 'You're never fully dressed without a smile," it helps to remember that the show is loosely based on Little Orphan Annie, the long-running comic strip, and comic strips are rarely about subtleties.

Annie opened on Broadway in 1977 with more than the usual ups-and-downs. Writer Thomas Meehan, composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin got the last laugh, however, when the show became the third-longest-running musical of its time despite a chorus of critical assaults describing it as 'mawkish," 'cheap nostalgia" and 'unabashed corniness."

Grimsley's staging is smooth and attractive. The cast sings and dances with a verve that wins you over, and Lindsey Price is credited with the imaginative choreography. Thankfully, some of the numbers have a bracing cynicism " like the trio of villains (Rooster, his sister and his girlfriend) celebrating 'Easy Street" with a fluent sense of greed. Jonne Dendinger did the excellent musical direction as well as conducting.

Annie is sometimes called a children's show for adults. It may be, but I noticed many bona fide kids were in the audience. They seemed entranced by the story and songs. After all, is there a child who can resist orphans and dogs?

click to enlarge Miss Hannigan (Becky Allen) does her best to make sure that Annie (Madison Kerth) doesn't enjoy life at the orphanage.
  • Miss Hannigan (Becky Allen) does her best to make sure that Annie (Madison Kerth) doesn't enjoy life at the orphanage.
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