“Leapin’ lizards!” exclaimed “Little Orphan Annie,” using her catchphrase and walking with her dog Sandy through the newspaper comics pages of the 1930s.
“Arf!” the sandy-colored canine responded (in his catchphrase!), as the two friends got involved in kidnappings, shipwrecks and mistaken identities, which were often left to Annie’s foster father, billionaire “Daddy” Warbucks, to resolve.
In the once-popular comic strip, such nail-biting plots were combined with homilies on the value of self-reliance, opposition to FDR’s New Deal and the virtue of hard work. “I don’t think a little work ever hurt any kid,” mused Annie in one storyline.
Yet, the world now knows and loves “Little Orphan Annie” simply as “Annie,” the eternally optimistic (and pro-Roosevelt!) red-headed protagonist of the stage musical and subsequent film franchise.
Just as we briefly returned above to the comic pages of yore, Director Patrick A’Hearn returns the musical to its original version, for – like the comic-strip character herself – the show “Annie” has been revised many times since the character’s first appearance on Broadway in 1977.
What A’Hearn found missing in post-1977 versions was heart, he told us, and that he restores in full measure in his production currently playing at the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Sally Struthers, acclaimed for her portrayal of curmudgeon Archie Bunker’s daughter Gloria on the legendary sitcom “All in the Family,” stars as Miss Hannigan, the tyrannical supervisor of an orphanage.
She imbues this comic character with multi-faceted dimensions, ranging from dishonest to outrageous to vulnerable.
We spoke to actress Struthers after the performance, and she said of her many interests, which include not only acting and music but her painting in water colors and oils.
We are sure these many interests and experiences helped her paint this stock character with as broad a brush and as many colors on the palette as possible.
Kylee Hope Geraci enacted Annie with spunk, optimism (the actress’ middle name, after all, is Hope!) and a powerful singing voice for Annie’s incandescent anthem “Tomorrow.”
Indeed, she has performed with the Washington National Opera Center at the Kennedy Center and the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland, College Park, here in Prince George’s County.
There are several scenes (such as “It’s the Hard Knock Life”), which are exclusively with children doing sophisticated choreography along with the singing.
Especially with local theater, using child performers to this degree can be hit or miss in achieving synchronized and syncopated movements as well as high quality of the voicing. Both dancing and singing were hits.
The efficacy of the youngsters’ delivery of dialogue, singing and dancing ability was a little short of amazing.
As Annie would say, “Leapin’ lizards!” Despite their youth, Fiona J. Scripps, Olivia McMahon, Michelle Stein, Temperance Barbour, Willow Kent, Raina Chan, Addisweet Mihoulides and Istra Muggeridge are highly experienced and trained stage performers and deserve mention here. Much of the credit for their routines goes as well to choreographer Stephanie Wood.
Finally, Christopher Sanders and Alan Hoffman must come in for special mention – Christopher Sanders for his brilliant and powerful singing voice as Oliver Warbucks (“Why Should I Change a Thing” and “Something Was Missing”) and Alan Hoffman for a spot-on impersonation of FDR’s Mid-Atlantic accent and unique cadences of speech.
Occasionally, “Annie” pays tribute to its origin in the funny pages by employing comic-strip stylistics, such as in the backdrop depicting New York City’s iconic Art Deco skyline. An exceptional feature of this production is the overlay of filmed scenes from the 1930s silhouetted against the curtain and stage sets, placing the audience into the time period of “Annie.”
Many of these videos are not innocent and nostalgic, but views of the unemployed waiting in a soup line, for instance. One video, which was a bit of Hollywood nostalgia, was used exceptionally well: a film clip of tap-dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and child star Shirley Temple dancing up the staircase in 1935 “The Little Colonel.”
Annie and Warbucks view this scene while visiting a New York cinema. Later, Warbucks and Annie (curly-haired, like Shirley Temple!) parallel this memorable celluloid moment by dancing up and down a staircase in Warbuck’s mansion. A live orchestra, brilliantly conducted by Carson Eubank, accompanies this scene (and indeed all musical portions of “Annie”) to significant effect.
The show runs through Nov. 17 and is recommended aside from all the merits noted above as a show which can put the audience in the Christmas spirit early, as much of the action in “Annie” takes place during Christmastime.
In addition to being a performing arts venue, Riverside is also a dinner theatre. “Annie” can be enjoyed with or without dinner beforehand in evening and matinee performances. Please visit the following website for further details: https://www.riversidedt.com/.