Family-friendly theater doesn't get much better than the national tour of the 1977 Tony Award-winning musical Annie. Who cares if it's sentimental fluff? Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin's musical, now playing at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, features a redheaded orphan with a grin that won't quit and a voice that will knock you straight into Tuesday. The children who see this charmer are likely to spend the evening on the edges of their seats -- there's nothing better for a kid than watching other rugrats dance and sing on stage, especially when they're as good as the orphans in this production. The grown-ups who settle into their seats will have to check their irony and cynicism at the door. In Annie-land, solving problems like the Great Depression or grief is as easy as singing a song.
The story opens on the gray world of the New York Municipal Orphanage during the lean years of the Great Depression. Here, a handful of ragamuffin orphan girls must make the best of things, no matter that they get nothing to wear but dirty pinafores and nothing to eat but mush. These are roughnecks with enough heart and soul to make it through the worst of times, and their out-of-the-ballpark version of "It's the Hard-Knock Life" proves it. They stomp across the stage, shake their tiny fists with rage and wiggle their little bodies to the beat. These girls know how to rock their own world, even if nobody else cares about them.
Of course, at the center of it all is tender-hearted Annie (Marissa O'Donnell). She wants nothing more than to get out of this...er...heck-hole. Annie just knows she's got a mom and a dad somewhere who want her, so she tries all sorts of things to wrangle her way to freedom so that she can go find them. When she finally sneaks out on the town for a few hours, she stumbles into a Hooverville camp full of hard-luck homeless folks living under the Brooklyn Bridge. They sing one of the funniest numbers of the show, "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover," railing on the Republican for sending America down the tubes: "You dirty rat," they sing, "you bureaucrat, you made us what we are today."
When Annie gets dragged back to the orphanage, she must deal with Miss Hannigan. As played by Alene Robertson, Hannigan is a dirty, rotten scoundrel you love to hate. Robertson's deep, rich voice fills up the Hobby Center, and the woman dances with so much high-octane energy that you can't keep your eyes off her whenever she takes center stage. Old lady Hannigan runs the orphanage, kicking girls when they're down and turning them into slave laborers while she swills liquor and listens to the radio. Robertson manages to be both menacing and hilarious as she threatens to backhand the girls, who always seem to get the best of the old broad.
Lucky Annie gets a break when billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Conrad John Schuck) decides he wants to give an orphan a home for the holidays. Once she gets to the Warbucks mansion, Annie wins over everyone, including President Roosevelt (Allan Baker), who saves the day when the redhead almost gets bamboozled by a couple of skanky lowlifes.
There's nothing remotely realistic in this story. But its charm is in the positive outlook Annie brings to any situation. And the music is loads of fun. Songs like "Tomorrow," "I Don't Need Anything But You" and "Easy Street" are full of the sort of Broadway brass that keeps you humming out to the parking lot.
And the cast is simply fabulous. The kids in this show are terrific to watch. Tiny as they are, they sing with huge voices and seem to love kicking up their heels in sweetly goofy moves across the stage. O'Donnell's Annie is irresistible. She's got a crooked grin that could melt an iceberg and a big voice that can be surprisingly tender in songs such as "Maybe." Schuck's Warbucks is a curmudgeon who morphs into the cuddliest of teddy bears. Even the chorus seems thrilled to be a part of this show.
Martin Charnin (who also wrote the lyrics) has directed his cast with so much energetic goodwill that it's hard not to come away from this glittering cartoon without falling a little bit in love with the whole thing. The sweet fairy tale of a story is likely to charm even the grumpiest of grown-ups. This show might be theater candy, but it's one of the yummiest things playing in Houston this month.
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