By Lynn Venhaus
Oh, she’s tiny, but she’s mighty. Peyton Ella is a born star as the plucky orphan in the Muny’s deeply affecting, best-yet “Annie.”
This eighth go-round feels different. Huggable and heart-warming, the annual ‘kids’ show’ is a special treat for families during the centennial season. Annie’s super-power is an unfailing optimism that we sure can use.
Since its premiere in 1977, “Annie” has endured widespread appeal for its old-fashioned charm, everlasting cheer and hope it gives to any generation. Winner of seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, it ran for six years on Broadway, a perennial global hit, and has been adapted into three movies in1982, 1999 and 2014.
The much-loved throwback, with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin, has a sly book by Thomas Meehan, whose clever wit is sprinkled throughout, along with an American history lesson.
Based on the long-running Little Orphan Annie comic strip (1924 – 2010), Harold Gray’s sunny street urchin was an innocent making her way in a corrupt world, a slate for his political commentary.
The Depression-era musical follows a self-contained story, where the 11-year-old ragamuffin is rescued from a Dickensian orphanage by mover-and-shaker Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks’ assistant, as he wants to host an orphan for the Christmas holidays. In true fairy-tale fashion, everyone in his household and social circles falls in love with the intrepid darling, and she eventually stays.
Director John Tartaglia has given “Annie” an animated deconstruction. With the skill and know-how of a Michelin-star chef, he has focused on simple and sincere storytelling, allowing a first-rate cast to shine. He wisely declined to pour on syrup or overstuff it, and the result is a not-too-sweet, not-too-busy warm dish of comfort food — without any artificial ingredients.
Tartaglia, a renowned actor-director-writer-puppeteer, loves the Muny, and in the new era, returns almost every summer. He won the 2018 Best Supporting Actor in a Musical Award from the St. Louis Theater Circle for his comical turn as Hysterium in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” last season, and he has amused audiences as the Cat in the Hat in “Seussical” and the Genie in “Aladdin.”
With his crisp comic sensibilities and child-like wonder, he knows what works, especially after previously directing ‘Shrek,” “Tarzan” and “The Wizard of Oz” (2016).
Of course, with an adorable dog, Sunny is playing Sandy, and an abundance of cute, cuddly kids, the attention could be taken away from the adults, but they grab their moments.
The chemistry between the main characters was palpable, particularly between Ella and a sensational Christopher Sieber as Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks.
Ella, a seasoned pro, is a natural, and became the show’s driving force as soon as she displayed her powerful pipes in the first song “Maybe.” She’s an impressive belter — but does not over-embellish her signature song “Tomorrow.” To the manor born? Her mother was an orphan in the original Broadway cast, and eventually played the title role.
Siebert, a two-time Tony nominee (“Spamalot” and “Shrek”), is thoroughly convincing as the blustery billionaire Warbucks. With a sweet soft spot for the disarming child, his solo “Something Was Missing” was touching.
Their bond was notable, and Britney Coleman as Grace Farrell had a nice rapport with them too. As the go-to assistant, she was a graceful addition in scenes and song. She also looked sleek in a stunning midnight blue evening gown, courtesy of costume designer Leon Dobkowski.
Earning two ovations for brilliant comical moments, Tony nominee Jennifer Simard (“Disaster!”) stole every scene with her acting, but her singing was not up to par as cruel orphanage manager Miss Hannigan. Her showcase, “Little Girls,” lacked any diction and was unintelligible.
But when she bowed to FDR as if he was a monarch and displayed remarkable stamina with a very long high-pitch scream, she had the audience in stitches.
Simard played well off Jon Rua as her crooked brother, Rooster, whose slick moves stood out in “Easy Street,” their rambunctious number along with brassy Holly Ann Butler as Lily St. Regis. An original cast member of “Hamilton,” Rua choreographed “Jesus Christ Superstar” here last summer.
The always superb John Scherer makes a fine President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and along with his staff, brings humor to “A New Deal for Christmas” and a reprise of “Tomorrow.”
The spry ensemble believed in the genuine goodness of the material. The stalwart veterans Whit Reichert, Rich Pisarkiewicz – sixth “Annie”! – Julie Hanson and Patrick Blindauer effortlessly fill several supporting roles, with Reichert dandy as the butler Drake.
The reliable Abigail Isom, who was Annie in 2009, is back as one of the Boylan sisters and the Star-to-Be in “N.Y.C.”
The principal orphans are a spirited bunch – Ana Mc Alister as Molly, Samantha Iken as Pepper, Trenay LaBelle as Duffy, Amanda Willingham as July, Madeline Domain as Tessie and Ella Grace Roberts as Kate.
Along with a youth ensemble, their enjoyable “Hard Knock Life” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile” are highlights.
The Muny razzle-dazzle shines in “N.Y.C.” an interesting bright-lights spectacle that features the St. Louis Strutters with the snappy ensemble, as they present a kaleidoscope of the glitzy Big Apple.
The work of choreographer Jessica Hartman (“Hairspray,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Seussical” here) and dance captain Mark Myars is captivating, and music director Colin Welford smoothly blends the peppy and the poignant.
A Muny-size production relies on inspired collaboration, and the expertise of many hands was apparent. Video designer Rob Denton’s elegant work seamlessly integrated with scenic designer Michael Schweikardt’s well-tailored but streamlined set.
The majestic Manhattan views, including Warbuck’s grand Fifth Avenue residence and the sights and sounds of “N.Y.C.” were outstanding, as were the accomplished lighting designs of Nathan W. Scheuer and sound designs of John Shivers and David Patridge.
The Muny has a knack for timeliness, and the message is welcome: Tough times don’t last but finding the good in people and predicaments never goes out of style.
Pessimists: get to “Annie,” stat! It’s a quicker picker-upper than any dose of medicine.
“Annie” runs July 18 – 25 nightly at 8:15 p.m. at The Muny.
Photos by Phillip Hamer