Fort Worth — 19th century American poet James Whitcomb Riley wrote a poem inspired by a young orphan girl who lived in their family home. His poem, Little Orphant Annie, became wildly popular. Through later printings the “t” was inadvertently dropped, and the title became Little Orphan Annie. Harold Gray created a comic strip around Whitcomb’s character in 1924. It too became popular, so much so that it inspired a radio show, and later several films between 1932 and 2014.
Gray’s depiction of 1930s American life is not a happy tale. The comic strip is a true reflection of society during the Great Depression complete with homeless clusters (Hoovervilles), fractured families (orphaned children), and the perils of unbridled capitalism. Throughout the tenure of Little Orphan Annie, Warbucks earned, lost, and regained his fortune. Annie was a fierce little girl who with her pup, Sandy, was a champion for the downtrodden, a defender against evil.
It took some finagling to distill that story down into the more pleasant, smile-generating parts but that is what Charles Strouse (music), Thomas Meehan (book) and Martin Charnin (lyrics) managed to do. The result of their effort is Annie, a musical which has enlivened audiences since its opening on Broadway in 1977.
The current production onstage at Casa Mañana is a reminder why so many fell in love with the core story. Company direction is by Steve Bebout, with James Cunningham as musical director and choreography by Merrill West.
Set in the 1930s, a young woman leaves her baby on the steps of an orphanage in the Lower East Side of New York City that is managed by Miss Hannigan (Kathy Fitzgerald). Before abandoning her, the mother left the baby with one-half of a necklace locket and a letter promising to return for her one day. That little baby was Annie (Josie Todd). She joined a group of orphaned girls who suffered under Miss Hannigan’s reign: Molly (Niesha Guilbot), Kate (Ruth Power), Tessie (Maddox Rogers), Pepper (Jude Lewis), July (Danielle Guilbot), and Duffy (Danika Ellis). Still wearing the locket and carrying her mother’s letter in her pocket, Annie dreams of the day her parents will return for her.
After escape attempts and meeting stray pup Sandy (Macy), Annie finds her luck when Grace (Cara Statham Serber), the secretary for millionaire Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks (Mike McGowan), drops by the orphanage to select an orphan to come and live for two weeks in the mansion during the Christmas holidays. The rest of the story, as you’ve probably seen many times, is happy for all. Comic conflict comes in with the characters of Lily (Lara Hayhurst) and Rooster Hannigan (Paul Castree).
Audiences who either grew up with the comic strip or with the earlier movies, or Broadway shows might expect to see a red-haired little urchin. This Annie does not have the curly red hair audiences have been conditioned to expect, after she gets cleaned up at Warbucks' pad. But the character is not her hair, so it doesn’t matter to the story. Josie Todd gives us a vigorous, bold and charming Annie. This is a little girl one can imagine fighting for worthy causes, accompanied by Sandy.
The orphans are a winning group, but it is hard to look away from Niesha Guilbot as Molly, the littlest among them. She is adorable.
Grace is written to be classy, astute, and caring. Cara Serber brings all of that and more to the role. She is such a striking presence onstage, exuding confidence and feminism as a 1930s woman. Grace, knowing that her boss wanted a boy, made a decision in the field to bring a girl instead, Annie. She manages him and keeps his life organized. Serber’s soaring soprano makes one wish Grace had a real solo.
The Warbucks character in the musical version of Annie doesn’t carry the baggage of the comic strip character, having been simplified. Warbucks is a successful billionaire capitalist with a soft spot for Annie, a sense of philanthropy, and a long-unspoken love for Grace. McGowan is very likable in this role. His lyric baritone melts in “Something Was Missing.” McGowan and Serber are well-matched as a couple.
The character of Miss Hannigan is a villain who physically abuses children and hires them out as labor to advance her own agenda. That villainy is underemphasized in the musical and this role is played as more comedic than not, especially since the movie version popularized by Carol Burnett. Fitzgerald comes through as the drunken, ill-tempered manager void of nurturing qualities. Her big number, “Little Girls,” is one of the strongest and most-anticipated moments of the show.
One of the most watchable people onstage is actually in the ensemble, Zachary J. Willis. He doesn’t do anything to steal focus. He is a standout because of the sharpness and stylistic qualities of his movements. He has committed to his character from head to toe to the tiniest gestures and detail.
Another highlight is Jessica Ann Martens’ as Star-to-Be singing “N.Y.C.” It is a presentational number, so she has benefit of being the featured person onstage, but she owns that moment and gives it tons of energy and vocal heft. It’s a really good performance.
Tammy Spencer’s costumes are fabulous, looking appropriate to the character, period and socio-economic class. Cat Petty-Rogers designed hair and makeup.
In an age where pit orchestras are a thing producers try to avoid, it is always thrilling to see a conductor’s hand rising from the pit, knowing there is a group of musicians giving life to the score: Roger Dismore, Jim Pritchard and Susan Ishi (reeds), Larry Spencer and Dan Evans (trumpets), Wes Woodrow (trombone), Derron Bell (drums and percussion), Jesse Fry (keyboard), Ann Rebecca Rathbun (violin), and Rex Bozarth (bass).
Sometimes it takes a child to cut through the din and remind us of what is really important, relationships and empathy. Annie still accomplishes that after all of these years.