By Teniola Ayoola
The Little Theatre of Alexandria’s production of Annie is a likable depiction of the Hard Knock Life, delivering a generally strong production with room for improvement in spots. Directed by Krissy McGregor, with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin, and a book by Thomas Meehan, this musical promises to leave you with the same feel-good optimism that it has since 1977 when it debuted on Broadway.
Annie is the story of a 10-year-old orphan girl who has the gumption to see a world that is fair and just. Despite the dreadful conditions of her own life in an orphanage, she is optimistic. This leads to her being loved by most who meet her but loathed by the orphanage caretaker, Miss Hannigan, a drunk who loathes not only her own loveless life but all the orphans she cares for and plans to one day be in a nuthouse until the “prohibition of little girls.” Annie is offered the opportunity to spend two weeks with a billionaire Republican, Mr. Oliver Warbucks, and this musical is about the events that unfold afterward.
The curtain opens to reveal a dual-functioning cityscape of alternatingly illuminated townhomes at the forefront and skyscrapers in the background. Rebecca Kalant and Adam Ressa’s set designs are creatively simple, attention-grabbing, and uncluttered. Each scene adds a few larger establishing set pieces: a lamppost and metal trashcan for the streets of Hooverville; two curving stairs, a desk, and a velvet chaise lounge for Mr. Warbucks’ mansion; a desk, American flag, and presidential seal for the White House.
One thing to love about this production is the play on words that layer its humor — for example when Miss Hannigan (Amanda Silverstein) tells Lily St. Regis (Rachael Fine), who earlier announced that she was named after a hotel, to “shut up you ‘hoe..tel.’” It is amazing how Silverstein’s insightful pause between the two syllables brings about rambunctious laughter from the audience. Silverstein’s performance as Miss Hannigan, though almost steller, sometimes borders on over-acting with frequent shouts into the microphone and champing at the bit for her retorts.
A commanding voice with far less hamminess is that of Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, played by Michael E. McGovern. If he talks like a billionaire, walks like a billionaire, and sings like a billionaire, then… you guessed it, he’s a billionaire. McGovern’s characterization of Daddy Warbucks as a man powerful enough to have access to the president of the United States, and have the Mona Lisa hanging in his home, was palpable, and we ate it all up. Even more believable was the chemistry shared between Daddy Warbucks and Annie.
Played in alternating performances by Anna Jones and Milly Gerstenberg, Annie sports the signature red hair the character is known for. Larissa Norris’ wig design swaps out a long red-orange one with bangs in Act I for short ginger curls in Act II. From start to finish, Gerstenberg’s Annie (in the performance I attended) was genuine, moving, childlike, and believable, all without being mawkish. In Act II when she learns of her parents’ death, she says, “Guess I always knew my folks were dead… ’cause they loved me, and they would have come back for me if they weren’t.” Her voice cracks at the last word and a heavy silence envelops the entire theater. And right there and then, Daddy Warbucks lets Annie know that he loves her. I am pretty sure I heard a sniffle behind me. Gerstenberg’s talent shines through even in lighter moments. For example, when Daddy Warbucks asks Annie if they could have a “man-to-man talk,” Annie responds promptly and, as if on cue, sits down in the exact manner as Daddy Warbucks: chest puffed up and feet spread wide apart. Seeing Annie imitate a grown man, double her size, was quite hilarious.
Molly, played by Aliza Cohen in the performance I attended, was quite endearing (Samantha Regan plays Molly in alternating performances). Cohen was adorable as she got stuck in a bucket during the “Hard Knock Life” number and was even cuter imitating Miss Hannigan with a delicate voice to “clean this dump till it shines like the top of the Chrysler Building!”
The ensemble is something else to note. We first meet the ensemble as the “ragged, hungry and homeless,” and later as the house staff in Mr. Warbuck’s mansion in Act I. We also see them as the busy people on the streets of Manhattan and then as White House cabinet members in Act II. Ensemble member Jennifer Thomas performs the solo in “Hooverville” and ensemble member Rachel Ferguson is featured as the lady who’s “just arrived” in New York in “N.Y.C.” and as one of The Lovely Boylan Sisters. Their solos carried the numbers each time as they sang wholeheartedly with sonorous, captivating voices.
There were some downsides to this production. Jessi Shull’s choreography was often stilted and lifeless. “It’s a Hard Knock Life” is the first number featuring all the children in the orphanage. However, the usual theatricality of the choreography that goes with this song (high jumps, upside-down hanging, swinging from chandeliers, sliding down railings, front flips, cartwheels, and other stunts) was not even mildly reproduced for a local audience in this rendition. Instead, Shull prepared numbered, measured, sophomoric movements that felt under-rehearsed. One could almost hear the orphans slowly counting “1…2…3…4 and 1…2…3…4” with each dance step. This continued with “I think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” the first number with the house staff. Once again, while simplicity worked for the set, it did not work for the choreography. The number featuring the house staff crowded onto the stage with a few household items as props but the energy, exuberance, and complexity of movement were still lacking.
The performers were excellently dressed thanks to costume designers Juliana Cofrancesco, Elspeth Grindstaff, and Carol Pappas. For example, the wine skirt suit worn by Grace Farrell (in an elegant performance by Heather Hanna) when she first visited the orphanage was tasteful. Although some of Grace Farrell’s later dresses did look like they were picked off one of the racks at T.J. Maxx or Marshalls rather than from 1933. Annie’s red and blue dresses were well-fitted and distinctive. The lighting designers, Ken and Patti Crowley, did an excellent job spotlighting each soloist and using lights as transitions. The sound designer, Adam Parker, was noticeably on cue with the background scores.
I urge you to go see Annie at the Little Theatre of Alexandria. As long as you manage your expectations, I have no doubt that you are going to like it there.
Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Annie plays through March 2, 2024, at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe Street, Alexandria, VA. To purchase tickets ($29–$37), go online or contact the Box Office via phone (703-683-0496) or email ([email protected]).
The program for Annie is online here.
COVID Safety: Face masks are optional but encouraged.
Teniola Ayoola is an arts and culture enthusiast. In her free time, you can find her at an art gallery, an art museum, or at the theater. She has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. She has had opportunities to work with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), intern with the Shakespeare Theatre Company, and receive mentorship as a White House Correspondents Association Scholar. She recently graduated with her master’s in Management from Harvard University and is now part of the “Theater U” program for art critics with DC Theater Arts. Follow her on X @TopTeniola!