You don’t have to wait for the sun to come out tomorrow. It shines non-stop in Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s latest powerhouse production, “Annie.”
From the lighted arches of David Len’s art deco set to the affable innocence of the treat-sniffing pooch that portrays Annie’s dog Sandy, this dazzling show delivers one delectable moment after another. Based on the comic strip, Little Orphan Annie, the musical is set in the 1930s when an optimistic orphan girl is invited to spend the Christmas holidays with a lonely billionaire.
The brightest beacon in Civic’s production is the extraordinary performance of Ellie Brower in the title role. This talented fifth-grader literally lights up the stage with her smile. Whether she’s calming a fellow orphan in the opening scene or charming the president’s cabinet in Washington, this little pixie knows how to command the stage, and she doesn’t hold back. When she belts out “Maybe” or “Tomorrow,” she delivers vocal polish and presence way beyond her years.
Noddea Moore Skidmore also stands out as the show’s villain, Miss Hannigan. Skidmore makes the orphanage matron’s frustration and impatience relatable. She sings her lament, “Little Girls,” with torchy seductiveness. One of my favorite numbers of the evening was “Easy Street,” featuring great harmonizing between Miss Hannigan and her brother, Rooster, (Jon Calkins) and a jazzy dance routine with girlfriend Lily (Emily Ambs).
Daddy Warbucks (Jason Morrison) isn’t as blustery and officious as some portrayals of the wealthy mogul, but he seems more distinguished and likable and has a strong chemistry with Annie.
Some of the best treats of the evening, however, are quick cameos and stellar performances by ensemble members. A dozen orphan girls form a kicking chorus line. Some cartwheel around the stage while others create engaging cameo characters like Molly (Ceci Tinney). The girls also move set pieces to keep the show fluid.
Dozens of other great little moments claim the spotlight, such as a radio show sound effects man (Josh Keller) meticulously tap dancing with his hands. Or when negative cabinet member Harold Ickes (David Brown) reluctantly joins Annie in singing her optimistic “Tomorrow.” Or when cook Mrs. Pugh (Nancy Dodge) steps forward repeatedly to proudly recite the dinner she has prepared. Director Allyson Paris has assembled a great cast and provided each with a moment to shine.
Len’s versatile set is quite striking. Steel-looking arches lining the side of the stage provide a reasonable frame for the aging orphanage and create a very believable highway underpass for the Hooverville camp. But then the shapes are repeated as art deco designs in the Warbucks mansion. The set also features a drop with an oval video screen for showing scenes of New York City in the song “N.Y.C.,” while masking scene changes behind.
The snappy, infectious music is created by a fairly large orchestra of 12 musicians, tucked under the stage and directed by Charles Hutchins. Costume designer Robert Fowle gives Annie the red and white dress we’ve come to expect from the comic strip, but she also jaunts off to Washington in a fetching sailor dress. He’s created coordinated green uniforms for the huge staff of the Warbucks house, from butler to cook. With ensemble members playing several roles, it’s often the costume change that keeps everything straight.
“Annie” has been delighting audiences for 40 years. This is Civic’s fourth production of the optimistic musical, and it is hard to imagine a better show to enjoy this holiday season.
Tickets are $18-$37. You can also call 222-6650 or order by email. Performances continue through Dec. 17.
*Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Civic Theatre