Theatre Review: 'Annie' 

click to enlarge The orphans in the North American Tour of "Annie," which plays at West Herr Auditorium Theatre through December 17.

Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

The orphans in the North American Tour of "Annie," which plays at West Herr Auditorium Theatre through December 17.

A rescued stray dog running on stage and children playing hungry orphans? The latest national tour of “Annie” playing as part of the Rochester Broadway Theater League season through Dec. 17 may be straight-up emotional manipulation, but leapin’ lizards — it’s done very well.

The musical needs little introduction, especially if you know (or once were) a young child who enjoys belting show tunes like “Tomorrow” or “It’s a Hard-Knock Life.” Based on the Little Orphan Annie comic strips, the musical first premiered on Broadway in 1977 with lyrics by Martin Charnin and music by Charles Strouse, also known for composing “Bye Bye Birdie” (and a graduate of the Eastman School of Music). A Tony Award winning hit, it inspired several screen adaptations including the iconic 1982 film with Carol Burnett and Tim Curry, as well as the modernized 2014 film starring Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis.

Perhaps it’s a lifelong familiarity with the show that helped director Jenn Thompson, who appeared as orphan Pepper in the original Broadway run, helm such a well-crafted staging of the show.

Audiences are welcomed to the theater, and to gothic, orphan-chic 1930s New York City, with a black and white photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge as the front drop. The show opens in the girls’ annex of the New York Municipal Orphanage, which consists of several beds in front of an ominous entrance door. Everything from the sets (designed by Wilson Chin) to the costumes (designed by Alejo Vietti) begins dreary and washed out, from the monochrome buildings in the background to the muted greens and browns in the orphans’ dresses.

“Why any kid would want to be an orphan, I’ll never know,” jokes the comically cruel orphanage owner Miss Hannigan (played rather gently by Stefanie Londino). She must not have seen “Annie” — or “Matilda,” or “Oliver,” or any of those other Broadway shows that make suffering as a child look absurdly appealing.

The ensemble of orphans are played by a group of talented and charismatic child performers, working well past a healthy bedtime. Annie, of course, is the bravest and quickest of the bunch. She carries a confidence that she will find her parents again, thanks to the note and glittering heart locket they left with her as a baby.

Rainier (Rainey) Treviño is more than capable in bringing this iconic role to life. She plays Annie with an authentically modern sensibility, belting every syllable with brassy confidence. Her “Tomorrow” does the popular song justice, although the scene is inevitably stolen by Sandy, played by rescue dog (and former understudy) Georgie, directed and trained by the original “Annie” animal director William Berloni.

click to enlarge Rainier (Rainey) Treviño and Georgie in the North American Tour of "Annie," which plays at West Herr Auditorium Theatre through December 17. - PHOTO BY EVAN ZIMMERMAN FOR MURPHYMADE.
  • Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.
  • Rainier (Rainey) Treviño and Georgie in the North American Tour of "Annie," which plays at West Herr Auditorium Theatre through December 17.
The first burst of color in the dreary landscape appears when Grace Farrell, secretary for billionaire Oliver Warbucks, appears in a vibrant blue dress and cape, looking to host an orphan for the holidays. It’s not just the dress - Julia Nicole Hunter brings that ineffable star quality to Grace that brightens the stage as soon as she steps into Miss Hannigan’s office. It’s affection at first sight for Grace and Annie, who have wonderful chemistry as Annie mimes her age and hair color while Grace describes Warbucks’s ideal orphan.

The Warbucks mansion, framed with white and gold windows and pillars, finally chases away the opening’s dim dreariness. A new backdrop of the city, still black-and-white but mostly sky, lights up the stage. Servants in forest green uniforms sing and dance (choreographed by Patricia Wilcox) their excitement at performing domestic duties for a new stranger. Christopher Swan shines as Oliver Warbucks, making the curmudgeonly workaholic a believable first-time father figure. He takes Annie out in the dazzling “N.Y.C.”, a showstopper where, for the first time, Annie sees her home city through the eyes of someone with wealth.

Considering the original source material was a comic strip, it’s unsurprising that the book, written by Thomas Meehan, has a cartoonish portrayal of money and poverty. The rich are to be admired, even if they admit, as Warbucks does, to “not being nice” on his rise to the top. The poor are to be pitied in this Great Depression-era city, where a guy can’t even make a few bucks selling apples on the streets. Pitied, that is, unless we’re talking about Miss Hannigan’s brother Rooster (a winning Jeffrey Kelly) and his girlfriend Lily (Samantha Stevens), who dream up a creative plan to get the tiniest drop of Warbucks’s wealth. They’re portrayed as the ruthless villains, who sing and dance a charming “Easy Street” but don’t deserve to actually live there.

The show’s cartoonish logic does lead to some of the more delightfully over-the-top moments in the show (left out of the movie adaptations), like when Annie inspires President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a convincing Mark Woodard) to come up with the New Deal through a stirring reprise of “Tomorrow.”

The show might inspire more optimism than its implausible rags-to-riches story really deserves (why does only Annie get to be adopted, huh? What about all the other kids abused and abandoned by the system?), but “Annie” continues to win over audiences and spark a love for theater in young people. With productions like this one, it’s easy to see why.

"Annie" runs at the West Herr Auditorium Theatre through Dec. 17. For more info and tickets: rbtl.org.

Katherine Varga is a freelance contributor to CITY. Feedback about this article can be directed to [email protected].
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