Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Cloth, Hatchet Lady, Chess, and Blithe Spirit

Carly Gendell, Lance Roberts and the Cast of Annie
Photo by Rich Ryan
Like Little Orphan Annie, the character in the long running comic strip, Annie the musical never ages. It is over forty years since Annie and her gang of orphans leapt onto a Broadway stage to scrub the floor of their bunk room till it "shines like the top of the Chrysler Building." Even in 1977 it was considered an old-fashioned musical, not doing a single thing to advance the form. Consider: the year before, the Tony winner for Best Musical was A Chorus Line, the year before that it was The Wiz, both of them ground-breaking achievements. With Annie, it was as if the radio dial was switched to an oldies station. Yet audiences loved Annie in 1977 and continue to love it today. It is as old fashioned and as new as ever, as displayed in the glorious production mounted by the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts as a holiday gift for all ages.

For those hold-outs who have never encountered the red-headed orphan who wins her way into the heart of tycoon Oliver Warbucks ... well, basically, that sums up the plot, but Thomas Meehan's well-crafted book elaborates on that premise. Annie believes her parents are still alive and is sure they will come back to rescue her from the municipal orphanage under the brutal thumb of a boozy matron, Miss Hannigan. Like a well-oiled serial comic-strip, the musical rolls through the quest for Annie's parents, a get-rich scheme hatched by Miss Hannigan and her equally vile brother, and Warbucks' unexpected flood of affection for the spirited 11-year-old whose sunny disposition is typified by the show's well-known anthem, "Tomorrow."

Harold Gray's comic strip "Little Orphan Annie" debuted in 1924, five years before the onset of the Great Depression. Gray held decidedly conservative political views and used his strip to criticize labor unions and support big business. When the depression hit, Gray opposed the New Deal and the Roosevelt administration. However, by setting their revisionist story in the depression, the musical's creators are able to sympathetically depict the plight of those reduced to poverty by the economic crash ("We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover") and put a positive spin on Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to rebuild the country ("New Deal for Christmas"). Oliver Warbucks is still a conservative Republican, but one capable of embracing liberal ideas. Annie opened on Broadway in spring 1977, just a few months into the presidency of Jimmy Carter, with an American public eager to receive positive, hopeful messages in the wake of Watergate and the war in Vietnam. Annie was the perfect metaphor for the healing America was hoping for, the right show at the right time.

It turns out that message seems to be an elixir for the political and social woes of every passing decade. Here we are again, searching the horizon for signs of optimism and a unified vision of human kindness and good will. This message is risen again at the Ordway in a wonderfully entertaining package directed by the multi-talented Austen Van. The results are a dream, with seamless staging moving the production fluidly from setting to setting. Van creates a consistent tone, giving the show the feel of a fable brought to full-bloom life by the wave of her directorial magic wand.

Annie's score, by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, is chock full of hummable melodies, most of them upbeat, though the yearning "Maybe," the jazzy "Easy Street," and the tender waltz "Something Was Missing" are terrific exceptions. Music director Jeff Rizzo leads the orchestra in producing beautifully rendered takes on that score, starting with an overture that draws the audience in with a horn blaring out the opening notes of "Tomorrow," sounding like a Salvation Army street-corner band that strikes right to the heart. Overtures have become the exception, rather than the rule, in musicals. When you get one as good as Annie's, you wonder why they have become such a rarity.

Up and down the line, Van has assembled a terrific cast to bring the show to life. All three leads—Carly Gendell as Annie, Lance Roberts as Oliver Warbucks, and Michele Ragusa as Miss Hannigan—have Broadway experience and are making noteworthy Twin Cities debuts. Gendell has the pluck and clarion voice called for to embody Annie. Roberts transforms from an aloof tycoon, his mind on his money, to a doting father figure. Ragusa hilariously hams it up as Miss Hannigan, oozing with venom for "Little Girls," vamping to beat the band whenever a man appears, and letting her passions soar and her body shimmy (along with Britton Smith and Cat Brindisi, both first rate as her brother Rooster and his girlfriend Lily St. Regis) invoking the glories of "Easy Street."

Ann Michels plays Warbucks' secretary Grace Farrell, who clearly sees him as more than just her employer, though he has never noticed. Michels has demonstrated that she can carry the lead in a musical (Chanhassen's Mary Poppins) and here she gives a supporting role much more substance than I have seen in previous Annies. The six young actors playing Annie's fellow orphans are as talented a troop of children as you are likely to find anywhere, whether bemoaning their "Hard Knock Life" or making fun of a radio crooner's "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile." The only disappointment is Bill Scharpen's weak portrayal of FDR. Of course, the many youngsters in the audience will have no idea how close Scharpen comes to capturing the real thing, so this is a case where ignorance is bliss.

Lewis E. Whitlock II's choreography features groups strolling and strutting, with the best work given to those darling orphans and the trio of villains who bring on the heat in "Easy Street." The glorious costumes are re-creations of Theoni V. Aldredge's Tony winning designs, and the stunning sets are based on Ming Cho Lee's designs for a 2005-2007 national tour. The scenic drops give the three-dimensional feel of a Hoovertown under the Brooklyn Bridge, of the joyful chaos of Times Square, and the capacious interiors of Warbucks' mansion on Fifth Avenue. Dan Darnutzer and Andy Horka have designed lighting and sound, respectively, for numerous Ordway productions, and are masters at getting the most out of the Ordway's large stage and excellent acoustics.

My most recent review was for an original work created by a small, off the mainstream company—Cloth, produced by Exposed Brick Theatre. My next after this one will be for another original work mounted by another small theater, The Terror Fantastic, staged by Twenty Percent Theatre. Both are excellent samples of the range of issues and performance styles embraced by our theater community. Annie, a hugely popular, oft-mounted traditional musical theater piece, came wedged between those two. The juxtaposition of these shows offers a vivid look at the range of ways in which theater enriches lives. Sometimes it is by examining social constructs and healing wounded psyches, pushing us to understand things beyond our ken to empathize with people unlike ourselves. But theater also enriches our lives in the form of joyful entertainment that tugs at your heart and leaves you with a grin from ear to ear, grateful that our troubled world still contains such simple, inherently good pleasures as Annie. It is a perfect show for whipping up holiday cheer, bringing up the sun now as much (if not more) as it did forty years ago.

Annie continues at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts through December 31, 2017, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets from $126.50 - $38.00, Standing Room: $34.00. For tickets call 651-224-4222 or go to

Book: Thomas Meehan; Music: Charles Strouse; Lyrics: Martin Charnin; Director: Austene Van; Choreographer: Lewis E. Whitlock III; Musical Director: Jeff Rizzo; Scenic Design: Based on original designs by Ming Cho Lee for the 2005-2007 National Tour; Costume Design: Aaron T. Chvatal, based on original costume designs by Theoni V. Aldredge; Lighting Design: Don Darnutzer; Sound Design: Andy Horka/Big Air Productions; Hair and Make-Up Design: Robert A. Dunn; Props Design: Rick Polenek; Animal Director and Trainer: William Berloni; Casting Director: Reid Harmsen; Production Manager: Andrew G. Luft; Production Stage Manager: Sharon Bach; Associate Musical Director: Andrew Bourgoin.

Cast: Elise Benson (A Star to Be/Boylan Sister), Cat Brindisi (Lily St. Regis), Erika Dierke (Pepper), J.P Fitzgibbons (Drake), Carly Gendell (Annie) Elena Glass (Boylan Sister), Lillian Hochman (Annie- matinee performances), Ann Michels (Grace Farrell), Olive Middleton (Molly), Audrey Mojica (Kate), Brianna-Marie Mraz (July), Brittany Parker (Mrs. Pugh), Adam Qualls (Bundles/Henry Morgenthau Jr.), Michele Ragusa (Miss Hannigan), Lance Roberts (Oliver Warbucks), Kersten Rodau (Boylan Sister/Frances Perkins),Randy Schmeling (Bert Healy, Cordell Hull), Carl Schoenborn (Dog Catcher, Kattenborn, Harold Ickes), Josie Turk (Duffy), Valerie Wick (Jessie).

Ensemble: Brynn Baker, Elise Benson, Stephanie Bertumen, Caitlyn Carroll, Ivory Doublette, J.P. Fitzgibbons, Thay Floyd, Charles Fraser, Elena Glass, Brittany Parker, Mari Peterson-Hilleque, Adam Qualls, Kersten Rodau, Matthew Rubbelke, Randy Schmeling, and Carl Schoenborn.

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