By Dale King
Not every stage show can be introduced with the phrase, “Ten months in the making.”
But that’s how Lake Worth Playhouse Artistic Director Daniel Eilola launched Annie when it opened this past weekend at the Lake Avenue performance center. It’s the first live production at the venue that’s been shuttered and vacant since the global coronavirus epidemic struck last spring.
After plenty of “stops and starts, lockdowns and re-openings, adapting to new realities and changing plans,” Eilola said, the 1977 Charles Strouse musical based on Harold Gray’s popular comic strip of the 1920s opened to sparse, socially distanced audiences.
The lack of viewers in no way reflects the quality of the performance. Vocals are all good; some exceptional. The acting is fine, and the scenery is top-notch. Set designer Cindi Taylor and her creative crew crafted motifs that can be moved quickly to transform the stage from the rough-hewn interior of a run-down New York orphanage to a Skid Row gathering spot for Depression-era jobless and, finally, to the opulent digs of billionaire Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks.
Annie, the scarlet-haired spitfire who’s lived at the Municipal Girls Orphanage for 11 years, still hopes her parents will return and take her home.
The spunky tot with the crimson curls and a heart full of hope is the title character in the show featuring music by Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin and book by Thomas Meehan. The original Broadway production won seven Tony Awards, including the accolade for Best Musical. The songs “Tomorrow” and “Hard Knock Life” are among its most popular numbers.
The role of lead charmer alternates Reese Lores, 12, and Victoria Johnson, 13, a pair of highly schooled entertainers who bring spirit and guts – along with gobs of talent – to the role.
We meet Annie — Reese the night we attended – during a ruckus at the orphanage when the youngest child, Molly (Ellie Pulsifer) awakes from a bad dream and angers the older kids with her crying. Annie tries to calm her by reading a note, supposedly from her parents, saying they’ll retrieve her someday. She recounts her wishes in the tender song, “Maybe,” giving an early indication of her vocal chops.
Annie escapes from the orphanage and runs into a friendly stray dog who becomes her companion, Sandy. As she comforts him, she sings of better days yet to come (“Tomorrow”). She then stumbles upon a Hooverville, where people made homeless by the Great Depression have come together. A policeman nabs Annie and takes her back to the orphanage, but the dog flees.
To punish all the parentless girls, the orphanage boss, drunken, nasty Miss Hannigan (excellently portrayed by Marci Robin), forces them to clean the place, giving them time to lament their terrible conditions (“Hard Knock Life”).
The action moves ahead as Annie is chosen by Oliver Warbucks’ secretary, Grace Ferrell (Megan Cires), to spend two weeks at the billionaire’s plush abode during the Christmas season. Hannigan is furious that Annie one-ups her, but Ferrell seals the deal with a threat to report the escape to the orphan board.
Warbucks (Bill Brewer) is smitten with Annie from the start, and, eventually, hopes to adopt her. But he first agrees to broadcast her circumstances on the Bert Healy (John Caparosa) radio show, which is played in the style of an old variety broadcast. She hopes to reach her mom and dad with her circumstances.
Does she? That’s for audiences with sanitized hands and face masks to find out. But first, viewers meet one of Warbucks’ buddies, President Franklin Roosevelt (Mark Fetterly), who’s inspired by Annie to give the nation a New Deal.
Cathy Randazzo Olsen, education and community outreach coordinator for the LW Playhouse, directs this cast of many that requires a deft hand to keep everyone in his and her places. Musical director Roger Blankenship and choreographer Kassie Meiler ably assist.
Annie is playing through Dec. 20 at the Lake Worth Playhouse, 713 Lake Ave., Lake Worth Beach. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 561-586-6410 or visit www.lakeworthplayhouse.org.