Like her or loathe her, Annie is back and she’s a knockout.
Closing a stellar season for Dare to Defy Productions, perhaps its greatest season thanks to the particularly dynamic Assassins and Violet in recent months, composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Martin Charnin and librettist Thomas Meehan’s 1977 musical arises as a surefire winner at the Victoria Theatre. Under the breezy, thoughtful direction of Dare to Defy founder/executive director Rebecca Norgaard, little orphan Annie’s literal rags-to-riches story, a tale of the haves and the have nots set during the Great Depression wonderfully bolstered by her single hope of finding her parents, captures the heart with a sunny, timeless optimism that never grows old.
The adorable Sophie Caton, a true find, perfectly captures Annie’s innate ability to meaningfully connect with those around her. Even in the make-or-break opening seconds Caton understands the importance of Annie as a magnetic mediator, ensuring she commands respect while keeping the peace as her fellow orphans taunt and tease out of jealousy. More significantly, she never discounts Annie’s desire for family, firmly grasping every wishful notion tucked within Maybe which allows the tune to gently soar as the prayerful lullaby it was written to be.
As Annie’s familiar journey evolves, Norgaard’s terrific cast, attractively costumed with a keen socioeconomic eye by John Faas (notice the tatters in Hooverville), fits the bill. The admirable Steven Lakes is firmly authoritative as wealthy Oliver Warbucks, especially undergoing a believable change of heart regarding living for and loving someone besides himself, but I definitely would’ve cut his Act 1 number Why Should I Change a Thing, which brings the action to a screeching halt. The lovely Allie Haines is a graceful Grace Farrell, offering motherly warmth to Caton while being astute about Grace’s attraction to Warbucks. Natalie Houliston’s outstanding portrayal of Miss Hannigan, in which every comedic ounce of the character’s agonizing, loveless hell is on clear display and not just during Little Girls, ranks among her best performances, a memorable list which includes Nancy in Oliver! and the Adult Women in Spring Awakening. Humorous duo David McKibben (suave Rooster) and Lindsay Sherman (ditzy Lily) enjoyably join Houliston for an infectious, vaudeville-esque Easy Street. Philip Drennen (who appeared as Charles Guiteau in the aforementioned Assassins and directed the aforementioned Violet) is only noted in the program as Bert Healy and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and while he is excellently versatile in those roles, his sharp finesse among the ensemble in We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover, I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here, and NYC proves what a singular talent he is. Sadie Hornick (Molly), Julia Stubbs (Kate), Abriella Ruby (Tessie), Caroline Kaibas (Pepper), Jewel Timpson (July), and Morgan Tracy (Duffy) are delightful as the principal orphans, filling It’s the Hard-Knock Life with defiant glee and bringing high-kicking energy to You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile, two numbers among many fabulously choreographed with exuberant spunk and joyful flair by Jessica Eggleston. Noteworthy performers include Zach King as Bundles and Ickes, Mackensie King as Hooverville’s top chef Sophie, Michael Robinson as stern policeman Ward, and Brennan Paulin as Drake. Additionally, the aforementioned McKibben pulls double duty as scenic designer (projections are a huge asset), Kris Smolinksi provides lighting design, Danielle Ruddy supplies properties, Jessi Lyn Stark serves as musical director, and Judy Mansky conducts an impressively solid, well-balanced orchestra.
Annie was conceived during a time of tremendous friction in our country. It ultimately served as a beacon of hope as Americans yearned for better following the Watergate impeachment proceedings and Nixon’s resignation. Flash forward to today’s headlines, it’s not hard to find talk of tremendous friction and impeachment once again. So, it looks as if we still need Annie perhaps now more than ever. Whether the Deal is New or Green, let’s get to work, keep the faith, and hold onto the promise of tomorrow.
Annie continues today at 2 and 8 p.m. at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., Dayton. Act One: 80 minutes. Act Two: 55 minutes. Tickets are $22.50-$54.50. Call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit ticketcenterstage.com.