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Bet your Bottom Dollar:

Thalian Hall
15-17, 22-24 Fri. – Sat.,
8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
$23-$25 •

Heather Setzler, Emilia Torello and J.R. Rodriguez gel in ‘Annie.’ Courtesy photo.

Something vivacious seems to grow within the audience after being subjected to a live performance of “Annie.” Aside from the obvious host of cute kids running around, singing and acting facetiously adorable, there is an uplifting spirit threading its lines, awaiting every tuned-in ear and, more importantly, deflated heart in need of hope. It all sounds rather cheesy, especially when considering 21st century cynicism. Yet, if “Annie” holds any truth, it’s the timeless nature of optimism. It beckons people at every turn in life, even during their deepest, darkest hours.

The story of “Annie” should be well-known to most: Little girl lives in an orphanage in the ‘30s, amidst the aftermath of the fated Great Depression. Her orphan-keeper, Ms. Hannigan, likes to hit the sauce frequently, which only fuels her disdain for all the girls in the home. Thus, Ms. Hannigan relinquishes any nurturing normalcy of child-rearing and uses the orphans as maids to clean the facility top to bottom.

Enter Grace Farrell, the secretary to billionaire Oliver Warbucks. Around Christmastime, Farrell is summonsed to find an orphan to stay in Warbucks’ lap of luxury for two weeks—all as a measure of goodwill, so to speak. This is a far cry from the tyrannical businessman known for his die-hard Republican values; “family caretaker” has never been a title on his résumé. Within a week, changes begin to occur within Warbucks thanks to that freckled-faced, cheerful red head.

The Opera House Theatre Company hit a major win with “Annie.” The story line eerily parallels today’s political landscape, wherein government grapples to bring our country out of a failed economy of crashing stock markets, incessant business closings and faulty unemployment rates. More importantly, the show completely proves why the OHTC scored 2011’s Best Theatre Company from encore readers: Head to toe, “Annie” squeals, “Showstopper!”

To say the kids in this production are talented simply would do no justice. The orphans all gel from the minute the curtain lifts and throws them into “Hard Knock Life.” Their choreography aligns to near perfection. When it doesn’t, it’s even more acceptable. After all, the spontaneity of orphans breaking out in song and dance needs to be believable. The boisterous facial expressions move every orphan as much as her feet—if not more. Each girl fulfills her role memorably here.

Ms. Hannigan brilliantly sloshes and slushes along thanks to a captivating Cindy Colucci. Colucci has the power to carry any musical on her shoulders because of her amazing pipes. She also has that sixth thespian sense, seemingly knowing when to hold back and allow the material to flow organically. I love her version of Ms. Hannigan. Desperation oozes from her every pore, but not in a pathetic way—in a defeated if not relatable way. She blows the roof off when she takes to “Easy Street” with her partners in crime, Rooster (Jason Aycock) and Lily St. Regis (Caitlin Becka). The outcome is saucy brilliance. Aycock and Becka are the perfect faux parents to Annie—conniving criminals amped up when looking to steal the show and dumbed down to farmer bumpkins when hoping to steal Annie. Their transitions are lovely. My only quip is that Becka is starting to get pigeon-holed into sexpot roles, a la her last few performances in “Ragtime” and “Chicago,” both of which were super! But I’d love to see her expand her acting catalog.

The only character running neck and neck to Colucci’s Hannigan is the commanding power that J.R. Rodriguez breathes into Daddy Warbucks; it also comes with unexpected grace. Perhaps it’s because Rodriguez has Warbucks in the bag from taking on the role nearly a dozen times. He knows how to make the billionaire appropriately intimidating and agreeably soft. His version of “NYC” showcases a man in love with lights, city and action, and learning that beyond those sparkling skyscrapers are people’s dreams—dreams he could help come true.

Heather Setzler’s Grace Farrell is understated at all of the right moments. Setzler makes Grace the all-encompassing professional, without too much emotive power. Her love for Annie isn’t lost, however, as she often reacts naturally in ways a mother would to a child. Setzler’s soprano voice carries with ease through many songs, just as her character’s name implies. She holds the “behind the scenes” power to Warbucks’ well-oiled machine, and Setzler comfortably wills the marionette controlling the play’s story at the right places.

What could “Annie” be without an adorable red head spouting early 20th century sayings like “golly gee” and “leaping lizards” with undeniable aplomb? Emilia Torello nails the solemnity of love lost without the bitterness often associated with it. Torello plays it upbeat and cool, while dialing down the spunk factor that I’ve seen of previous Annies. I expected more cheekiness of the lead role. Though she wasn’t the shiest of the bunch, it wasn’t as brazen watching her ball her fist at other orphans or taking to the title of “runaway” as an expected firecracker. Her voice proves worthy of even the highest crescendos, showcasing trained talent that will take her across many stages if she sticks to live theatre.

Other roles adding a grandiose wistful take to the timeline include John “Perk” Perkinson as President Roosevelt. Perkinson teeters the line on being optimistically inspiring and downright likeable. Though his role doesn’t have tons of stage time, it’s memorable in its comedy. (If only the ensemble singing among our current administration could transform Washington politicos into agreeable human beings, we’d be set!)

It can’t go without notice that the entire cast, especially the backup singers and dancers, are as noteworthy as any lead onstage. “Hooverville” will ring closer to home to today’s political climate than need be, but these dancers certainly put a worthy kick to it all. My only qualm: I would have liked to see more ensemble dancing during “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here.”

Aside from singing along to childhood memories of my own (“Maybe” and “Never Fully Dressed (Without a Smile)”), the cast pulls off a menagerie of color, style and elegance. The band incites many tickles of the keys, blows of the horns and demanding orchestral moments. In return, the audience complies with doe-eyed wonder; plastered smiles permeate children’s and adults’ faces alike. The professionalism OHTC brings to “Annie” cannot be matched. The scene changes, furniture and backdrops are spot-on in showcasing the 1930’s with formal moxie—as is the magnificent costuming, courtesy of Juli Harvey. From the ragged orphans to the streamlined staff uniforms of the Warbucks household to the pajamas of Ms. Hannigan: All of it works!

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