Sunshine - amplified - in Olney Theatre's delightful 'Annie'

CLASSIC: The big kids and the wee ones, playing orphans singing "It's a Hard Knock Life," both do nice work in the musical "Annie."
CLASSIC: The big kids and the wee ones, playing orphans singing "It's a Hard Knock Life," both do nice work in the musical "Annie." (Stan Barouh)
By Nelson Pressley
Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Christmas party has already started at the Olney Theatre Center, where a plucky redheaded orphan and her bald billionaire protector are hosting an expansive, confident production of the evergreen musical "Annie."

Steer clear, of course, if orphans belting show tunes ain't yer bag, but know that this is as snappy a musical as Olney has presented. The design, borrowed from the recent national non-Equity tour, features sets by the great Ming Cho Lee, and he makes uncommonly good use of painted drops to evoke 1930s Manhattan while building both a cockeyed orphanage and a deluxe staircase in the Warbucks mansion. The costumes, from threadbare rags on kids to money-green suits for butlers, are credited to Theoni Aldredge, who designed the 1977 Broadway originals.

These spiffed-up visuals nicely showcase director Mark Waldrop's talented cast, nearly all of whom are nimble of foot and hearty of voice. (Let's get the one big caveat out of the way now: As of Saturday night's opening, these performers were dreadfully over-amplified.) The uncommonly balanced ensemble delivers vivid character work and warm comedy as the drifters in "Hooverville," as the swanky mansion staff swirling around the delighted Annie during "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here," and creating the comic radio studio bustle of "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile."

And the fabled kid and dog, drawn from the long-running comic strip Little Orphan Annie? They're swell, naturally. Actually, Abby, the golden retriever who alternates with a sable and white collie in the role of Annie's mutt, Sandy, is fetchingly obedient yet slightly stiff in the role, but sixth-grader Caitlin Deerin is redheaded sunshine as Annie, the most upbeat castoff in the evil Miss Hannigan's tenement orphanage. And though it's tempting to allow your eye to be hijacked by the youngest orphans - so wee you're amazed they're on stage - the big kids do nice work, too, indomitably scrubbing and singing "It's a Hard Knock Life."

Playing the oppressive Miss Hannigan, Channez McQuay goes full monster, which may work once they turn down the microphones. As it is, the shrill volume kills half the comedy, though McQuay's rendition of the big, desperate finish in "Little Girls" is musically brilliant.

The other bad guys - Hannigan's criminal brother, Rooster, and his underhanded arm candy, Lily St. Regis - give the show its glorious dose of pizazz during "Easy Street," the sultry number about getting rich quick. (Their scheme is to con Daddy Warbucks, who has offered a reward if Annie's real parents can be found, that they fit the bill.) Bobby Smith and Jenna Sokolowski exult in the roles, strutting and crooning (with McQuay joining the irresistible musical fracas) as if vaudeville never died.

George Dvorsky's gruff, silky-voiced Warbucks, James Konicek's wittily brisk Drake (the head butler), Rob McQuay's upbeat FDR - the list of performances to admire could go on. The Charles Strouse-Martin Charnin score, with its Broadway anthems ("Tomorrow") and streaks of Depression-era jazz, is ably played by Christopher Youstra's six-piece orchestra, and the deep, appealing cast beams as they bring "Annie's" irrepressibly cheerful numbers home.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Annie book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin. Directed by Mark Waldrop. Lighting design, Charlie Morrison; sound design, Christopher Baine. With Janet Aldrich, Rachel Olivia Condliffe, Kylie Sage Cooley, John Dellaporta, Lily Discepolo, Sadie Rose Herman, Madeline Heyman, Alan Hoffman, Adalia Jimenez, Carrie A. Johnson, Heidi Kaplan, Jacqueline Kempa, Jason Lott, Sydney Maloney, Jamie Ogden, Allie Paris, Autumn Seavey, Leo Christopher Sheridan, Nia Smith, Andrew Sonntag, Carolyn Youstra, and Colette Youstra. About 2 1/ 2 hours. Through Jan. 2 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Call 301-924-3400 or visit

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