Review: Annie is great family fun with a big serving of cute

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Leapin’ lizards! This Annie is great family fun with a great big heart and a very big serving of cute.  Oh, did we also mention a loveable dog named Sandy?

Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) opened its 63rd season at Malkin Bowl last night with the first of its two repertory productions (Thoroughly Modern Millie plays on alternate nights).  And despite the dire warnings in the old adage that one should never work with children or animals, thankfully this myth is debunked once again with a strong cast and a mutt that elicited oows and ahhs simply by walking on stage.

Annie, based on the Little Orphan Annie comic strip characters which appeared in newspapers from 1894 through to 1968 tells the story of 11-year old Annie (Michelle Creber), abandoned at a New York City orphanage by her parents years ago.  The orphanage, run by cruel drunkard Miss Hannigan (Colleen Winton), is a tough place for Annie and the rest of the girls.  Annie decides to run away to search for her parents but is soon returned to the orphanage and the wrath of Miss Hannigan.  But Annie is back for only a very short time before she is whisked off to live with millionaire, I mean billionaire, Daddy Warbucks (David Adams) whose rolodex includes the likes of Babe Ruth, J. Edgar Hoover and, of course, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Robin Sukorokoff).  It doesn’t take long for Warbucks and Annie to hit it off and Annie soon inserts herself permanently into Warbucks’ life.

Michelle Creber as Annie and Dana Luccock as Grace Farrell and the cast of Annie.  Photo by Tim Matheson.

TUTS has put together a large cast here with a mixture of professionals and amateurs and given the large number of young actors the production requires, they have obviously hit upon an ideal show to further their mandate “to help educate young people in the spirit of musical theatre”.

Nine year old Michelle Creber’s Annie is that prefect mix of orphan-hardened survivor and the little girlie girl that even the aloof Daddy Warbucks can’t resist.  While her singing voice is strong it is her acting abilities that really shine through here.  And as a demonstration of how “seasoned” this young girl appears, at one point Creber knew better than to fight with her reluctant four-legged co-star.

The rest of the orphan ensemble are simply adorable and one must wonder if it is the fictional Miss Hannigan that works these poor girls to the bone or Choreographer Jason Franco who, in a couple of scenes, left them breathless (in a good way).  Special kudos must go to Nicol Spinola as Pepper who also plays double-duty as dance captain to the orphans.

Of the adult leads, while Adams and Winton do good jobs in making their roles their own knowing the audience will always compare them to the more famous duo from the movie version, for me it was Todd Talbot’s turn as Rooster Hannigan that had me wishing his character played a larger part in the show.  Indeed one of the show highlights is “Easy Street” with Rooster, Miss Hannigan and Lily.

Thankfully the sound problems that plagued TUTS last year appear to be a thing of the past with a crisp clear sound for most of the show.  Chris Sinosich’s 1930s costumes are spot on and Francesca Albertazzi’s set design remains simple but effective, especially when she decides to move to the more surreal feel of the original comic strip.  Her use of the large radio as a central theme was especially effective.

Musical Director Wendy Bross Stuart does a good job keeping the orchestra together and in synch with the actors on stage and while some of the orchestra’s solo moments may have been a bit off, they simply shined in the show’s larger rousing production numbers.

Choreographer Franco makes good use of the large cast in the larger production numbers and is wisely restrained when dealing with some of the smaller more intimate scenes.

Bringing it all together is Director Glynis Leyshon who, while giving the show an angrier edge than perhaps the material deserves, elicits some good performances from this large cast.  And her decision to stage the final chase scene as she does is, while somewhat manipulative, a definite crowd pleaser.

TUTS has a winner here as some great family-friendly entertainment that will keep you humming about the possibilities for tomorrow long after the final curtain.

Annie plays every second night in repertoire with Thoroughly Modern Millie through August 22nd.  Tickets are available online through Tickets Tonight, by calling 604-684-2787 or at the gate starting at 1pm each day.

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