Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Children's Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of A Christmas Carol and The Empathy Project

JoeNathan Thomas and Audrey Mojica
Photo by Kaitlin Randolph
The sun may come out tomorrow, but inside the Children's Theatre Company it couldn't be sunnier, as the lights are back on, welcoming audiences back with the well-loved musical Annie in a production that couldn't be brighter. The show was to be the Children's Theatre's summer show in 2020, and now it arrives to re-light their stage just in time for the Christmas holiday season. It's the perfect show in the perfect venue at the perfect time.

Annie was a 1977 Tony winning smash hit based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie that ran in newspapers from 1924 until 2010. The strip follows the adventures of Annie, an orphan adopted by bachelor billionaire Oliver Warbucks. Between his wealth and world connections, and Annie's pluck and good heart, their lives were a series of intrigues and adventures that took them from their home in New York City all around the world, accompanied by her faithful dog Sandy.

The musical Annie serves as an origin story, telling how Annie and Warbucks found each other. The story moves up the comic strip's 1924 launch to 1933, when America was reeling in the throes of the Great Depression, hoping that newly elected president Franklin D. Roosevelt would be able to stem the tide. Though Annie seemed like a throwback to old-fashioned musicals (the two previous Tony winners had been The Wiz and A Chorus Line), its themes of hope and recovery resonated with audiences in 1977, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Watergate debacle. Those themes certainly are apt for our current moment in history.

Bookwriter Thomas Meehan whipped up a plausible fable, placing eleven-year-old Annie in a horrible New York City orphanage for girls run by the despicable, booze-addled Miss Hannigan. Unlike the other orphans, Annie has reason to hope her real parents, who abandoned her as a baby all those years ago, will still come back for her. When she is the lucky orphan chosen to spend the Christmas holiday in Warbucks' palatial home, she still awaits her parents' return. From there, the plot thickens.

So many people have seen Annie, either on stage or in one of the film or TV versions, there seems little chance of running a spoiler in this review, but for anyone seeing this delightful show for the first time, I will only say that the final scene offers a Christmas tree and a very special Christmas gift. Along with its unstoppable good will, it is perfect for the season.

The score, by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, serves up several top notch songs. "Tomorrow," sung with full throat by Annie, has become an anthem to optimism; the bluesy "Easy Street" is fodder for a comically decadent dance by Miss Hannigan and a couple of accomplices; and "Maybe" is as close to guaranteed to melt our hearts as a song can get. "Hard Knock Life" and "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" both give a troupe of adorable orphans the opportunity to sing and dance up a storm, one per act.

A pair of well-conceived ensemble numbers create complementary stage images: "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover" offers a sanitized look at the rampant despair of the Great Depression using positioning and movement that falls a bit short of all out dancing, while in "NYC" the same strategy is used as Warbucks illustrates to Annie the glories of the Big Apple in its art deco heyday. The lyrics in both numbers nicely balance sarcasm with affection.

A couple of songs are omitted in this production: "You Won't Be an Orphan for Long" and the title number, "Annie". Both are sub-par. Another excised number, "A New Deal for Christmas," served as a rousing finale in past productions, but its references to Roosevelt's cabinet members and New Deal politics may have been felt to have no meaning for Children's Theatre's young audiences. The songs that remain are all winners and do what songs in a good musical are meant to do: move the plot forward while entertaining the crowd.

A pair of young actors alternate in the taxing title role. Audrey Mojica performed at the opening weekend performance I attended, and she is super, conveying Annie's range of emotions—from heartbreak to elation—with the bold force of a comic strip caption. She sings out "Tomorrow" with a clarion voice, and brings the right notes of a wounded-but-not-down orphan in "Maybe."

JoeNathan Thomas is exceptional as Warbucks. I have seen quite a few Annies over the years, and Thomas surpasses them all. He truly conveys the change of heart Oliver Warbucks experiences as this brash little girl teaches him to love. We are not told that Warbucks has changed—we see it before our eyes. Beyond that, he has a gorgeous voice, with deep, emotive tones for the tender "Something Was Missing" and pivoting with ease in the very next scene to a snap-happy number, "I Don't Need Anything But You."

Emily Gunyou Halaas, a happily menacing Miss Trunchbull in the Children's Theatre's Matilda, is back in despicable form as Miss Hannigan, her extravagant flounces and screeching command underscoring what a foul woman she is. She bites into her solo turn, "Little Girls," with cheeky abandon, and is great joining Autumn Ness and Reed Sigmund to dream about life on "Easy Street." Sigmund and Ness, both mainstays of Children's Theatre Company, are perfectly cast as Hannigan's nefarious brother Rooster and Rooster's dimwitted moll Lily St. Regis. Both actors seem right at home as characters so idiotically evil, you can't help but love them. Janely Rodriguez fares well as prim but kindhearted Grace Farrell, Warbucks' secretary and Annie's advocate.

The seven talented young performers playing orphans easily win us over. The rest of the cast, in multiple roles and forming the ensemble, do fine work, bringing strong voices to the choral numbers. They all look terrific in the depression-era costumes that spring right out of a depression-era picture book, designed by Richard O. Hamson. The set designed by Vicki Smith may well be the most elaborate I have ever seen at a Children's Theatre production, with the towers of 1933 Manhattan—if I am not mistaken, the Woolworth and the Empire State buildings among them—reaching up and holding this New York fable in the embrace. Paul Whitaker's lighting complements the sets to provide the time of day and the mood for every scene.

Peter Rothstein, whose work with musicals as artistic director of Theatre Latté Da is second to none, directs this production with clockwork precision. Every scene accomplishes what it sets out to do, transitions from one to another are seamless, and the narrative arcs steadily upward toward its oh so satisfying conclusion. Kelli Foster Warder's choreography enlivens the piece, especially when the orphans take to dancing, and in the steamy moves given to Hannigan, Rooster and Lily for their trip down "Easy Street."

In this production, the scene in which Warbucks brings Annie with him to attend FDR's cabinet meeting in Washington has been omitted. It is an entertaining scene, but like the song "A New Deal for Christmas," its references to the likes of Cordell Hull and Frances Perkins would mean nothing to most of the audience. Its omission does not injure the cohesion of the narrative in any way, and helps reduce the run time for young children who, even when they love a show, can only stay seated for so long.

Annie is a funny, uplifting, and immensely entertaining holiday gift from Children's Theatre Company. You very likely have spent time with this spirited orphan before, but the good cheer that radiates off the stage makes it well worth a return visit, and the opportunity to introduce younger family members to this delightful show, in such an accomplished production, shouldn't be missed.

Annie runs through January 9, 2022, at at the Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $20.00 - $83.00. Ten percent discount for purchase of six or more tickets. $10.00 discount on most seats for children up to age 17, seniors (age 62 and up) and military adults. For tickets call 612-874-0400 or visit Annie is suitable to be enjoyed by all ages.

Book: Thomas Meehan; Music: Charles Strouse; Lyrics: Martin Charnin; Director: Peter C. Brosius; Choreography: Kelli Foster Warder; Music Director: Victor Zupanc; Set Design: Vicki Smith; Costume Design: Richard O. Hamson; Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Sound Design: Sten Severson, Victor Zupanc; Animal Trainer: William Berloni; Fight Coach: Dean Holt; Stage Manager: Jenny R. Friend; Assistant Stage Manager: Kathryn Sam Houkom; Assistant Choreographer: C. Ryan Shipley; Assistant Costume Designer: Barb Portinga; Assistant Lighting Designer: Ellie Simonett; Associate Sound Designer: Katherine Horowitz.

Cast: Jaya Bird (ensemble), Evan Decker (ensemble), Gabrielle Dominique (Boylan sister, Sophie, Mrs. Greer), Gerald Drake (Drake, apple seller), Marc Gill (chauffeur, radio announcer), Emily Gunyou Halaas (Miss Hannigan), Dean Holt (Fred McCracken, Wacky, President Roosevelt), , Sam Mandell (Bert Healy, rugrat), Audrey Mojica * (Annie), Autumn Ness (Lily St. Regis), Rue Norman (Boylan sister, Cecille), Natalie Pietig (Boylan sister), Audrey Powell (rugrat), Janely Rodriguez (Grace Farrell), Lola Ronning * (Annie), Reed Sigmund (Rooster), JoeNathan Thomas (Oliver Warbucks), Tic Treitler (ensemble), Nicola Wahl (ensemble). Orphans: Anja Arora, Madelyn Davis, Elsa Dungan-Hawks, Chloe Lou Erickson, Adelyn Frost, Mari Peterson-Hilleque, Mabel Weismann. Sandy: Bailey, Sunny

* Alternating performances