By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Reviewer
I suspect you’ve seen “Annie” at least once and hopefully it was a great experience. But that was maybe “back in the day”—possibly as far back as 1977 when it opened. I know because I saw it pre-Broadway that year, loved it, and thought that would do it for me. Later on, I saw it in regional and local productions which were nicely done and I got to hear those wonderful Charles Strouse/Martin Charnin songs again, but nothing ever measured up to the original production. Well, have I got great news for you!
“Annie” now playing at the Riverside Center for the Arts has regained its position as a first-class musical. “Why,” you may ask? Because it has a first-rate, A++ cast! Not only that, the seven-piece orchestra conducted by Carson Eubank supports this production perfectly and can stand on its own (and does in several joyous instances). Additionally, the heroic set by Frank Foster includes brilliant projections curated by director Patrick A’Hearn that indelibly stamp the era in your mind before the show even opens and appear occasionally during the show to great advantage.
This show in case you’ve forgotten won seven Tony awards, including best musical of 1977. Set in 1933, it’s the story of a spunky orphan in search of her parents. “Little Orphan Annie”, based on the Harold Gray comic strip, depicts an optimistic orphan’s belief in a better tomorrow. Our Annie is ever the optimist! And don’t we need more of those? Patrick went back to the 1977 book and vocal score (there have been many changes/additions over the years) to bring back the vitality of the original musical presented on Broadway.
The amazing cast I just spoke about is led by the incomparable Sally Struthers (“All in the Family”), who plays Miss Hannigan, barking orders, singing up a storm, and dancing hilariously even while doing a drunk act that would fool anyone! She’s still got it, folks! But more than that (and I’ll get to the children in a second), the singer/actor chosen to portray Daddy Warbucks is the renowned bass/baritone Christopher Sanders! I believe (from his bio) that he has sung about every single role possible for a man to sing in the musical theatre canon, so he brings a lifetime of musical experience to this performance and you will hear that onstage! He IS Daddy Warbucks. And he plays him for real, not like a cartoon. Warbucks gives the impression of a man who has finally found the one thing he’s been missing all his life—Annie. When he envelopes her in his big arms (he’s 6’5”), opening his heart as well as his arms, there’s not a dry eye in the house.
Now, about the children cast in this show to tear up the joint and bring us to tears. Kylee Hope Geraci inhabits Annie and only pretends to be a child (just kidding Kylee!). She has done 19 roles, most in professional venues! She is simply brilliant in this role and I can’t wait to see more of her work. All the little girls (9 including Annie) are accomplished singers and dancers. In fact, when the entire ensemble gets together to sing, the blend is astonishingly beautiful!
Miss Hannigan’s criminal brother Rooster (PJ Freebourne) and his sexy consort Lily St. Regis (Gabrielle Donadio) nearly stop the show with their marvelous rendition of “Easy Street”! They are so evil and their dancing so brilliant, they DO stop the show in the reprise of “Easy Street” in the second act. Wait for it!!! Did I say that the choreography by Stephanie Wood is absolutely wonderful? Well, it is! This is a dance show as well as a musical. So many others in the cast deserve special mention, I just don’t have the space, but I must mention F.D.R. (Allan Hoffman) and Grace Farrell (Katie Little). These actors/singers bring such believability and warmth to their roles, you can’t take your eyes off them. And the costumes by Kyna Chilcot are fun and evocative of the era. But they are also spectacularly detailed when the need arises, such as the final scene when everyone dresses up for Christmas. Daddy Warbucks is in his white dinner jacket and what appears to be spats, Grace is in a slinky silk charmeuse number, and Annie is in a little red taffeta dress that evokes the iconic red and white dress of the comic strip in that cavernous, but now warm living room. Unforgettable!
What a show! It’s a knockout!
Performance and Ticket Information: Running time: approximately 3 hours with one intermission. “Annie” plays through November 17, 2019 at the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, 95 Riverside Parkway, Fredericksburg, VA. For tickets, call (540) 370-4300 or purchase them online at www.riversidedt.com.