Civic Light Opera's 'Annie' warms audience's hearts
If you hope to foster a fondness for theater in youngsters, it's not enough just to take them to see plays.
The plays that you take them to should be the best available - high-quality productions filled with talented and enthusiastic performers, an engaging music and story, attractive scenery and costumes and an upbeat ending with the entire cast onstage.
Throw in a dog, a gruff bald guy with a soft heart of gooey caramel and a winsome but spunky orphan, and you've just described the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera production of "Annie" that's playing at the Benedum Center through July 3.
Since its Broadway debut in 1977, lyricist Martin Charnin's brainstorm of turning a Drepression-era comic strip about an orphan adopted by a billionaire business tycoon into a musical has been introducing kids -- and even some older neophytes -- to theater.
Thomas Meehan's story relates 11-year-old Annie's abiding belief that her parents will reclaim her from the orphanage run by a hungover harridan, her protective relationship with a stray dog named Sandy and her growing affection for Oliver Warbucks. It's filled with cliffhanger tension as an unscrupulous couple attempt to claim Annie as their own so they can collect the $50,000 reward, and lots of good humor as the ever-optimistic waif convinces President Roosevelt and his cabinet that they should "bet your bottom dollar on tomorrow."
Civic Light Opera's Annie, 14-year-old Meredythe Ann Kimmel, is a Franklin Park resident with a tremendous voice, a full measure of sunny pluck and just manipulative enough to keep her from becoming saccharine.
She's backed up by a veritable swarm of orphans -- six supporting ragamuffins played by Lexie Rohlf, Katelyn Pippy, Mia Parillo, Rosanna Paterra, Lyric Beth Ackelson and Hillary Maloney, plus an occasional chorus of 23.
That multitude of moppets fills even the gigantic Benedum stage at regular intervals, at times giving the show the look of a high school musical. But it also offers a warm ahhhhh factor that the audience enthusiastically embraces.
Meredythe's onstage presence measures up nicely against an adult cast of seasoned professionals, especially Conrad John Schuck, who has played Oliver (Daddy) Warbucks on Broadway, in the national tour and in the 1996 Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera production.
Schuck wins our heart as the cantankerous buffalo awkwardly unaccustomed to dealing with little girls. Warming to Annie's unselfish sunniness, his reserve melts like a chocolate bar and he acknowledges in song "Something Was Missing."
Also reprising a familiar role is Sally Struthers as the irascible, domineering orphanage operator Miss Hannigan, a flask-toting floozy who comically belts out her weariness of dealing with "Little Girls." Struthers paints Miss Hannigan in broad, comedic gestures that occasionally go over the top. But the audience loves her whether she's engaging in tyranny, self-pity or skulduggery.
She does the last as co-conspirator with Jim Walton as her shyster brother Rooster and Beth Glover as his latest girlfriend Lily St. Regis, as they outline in song their planned path to "Easy Street."
In smaller parts, Lynne Wintersteller makes a classy Grace Farrell, and Tim Hartman plays an iconic President Roosevelt. Jeff Howell appears as Warbucks' unflappable butler Drake. And Megan Nicole Amoldy, Jo Ellen Miller and Meg Pryor create some lively but subtle byplay as The Boylan Sisters.
Buster, a canine professional who covered more than 90,000 miles on the road with the national tour of "Annie," offers a winning, nicely restrained performance as Sandy.
Credit also should be paid to director Charles Repole for keeping the pace swift and crisp throughout, and to Tony Stevens for his low-key choreography.
By the show's end, many in the audience had taken Annie's major fashion tip of the evening -- "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" -- to heart. Almost everyone left wearing one.