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Thalian Hall
7/6-10, 15-17, 22-24, Wed. – Sat.,
8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
$23-$25 •

“You’re never fully dressed with-out a smile.” The lyrics wrap up America’s fascination with Little Orphan Annie to near perfection. After all, aren’t we a country full of hope and made for dreams?

Originally an 1885 poem, Harold Gray turned “Little Orphan Annie” into a comic strip in the 1920s, which continued a syndicated run in newspapers until June 10, 2010. Connection to Annie’s red ringlets and sweet mutt, Sandy, first came from an adult readership because of the strip’s underlying political topics, covering communism, organized labor and The New Deal. Throughout years of the story’s evolution, aside from its many lessons learned, the wayward child’s journey through a crooked world alongside her caretaker, Daddy Warbucks, became the storyboard for making dreams come true. From it shone integrity, born of adherence to positivity under any circumstance, and the kinship gained from loyalty to friends and neighbors. Somehow, some way, Annie always managed to wrap up that little thing called “hope” with a wink and a smile—and in 1977, even a jig, as the story took to Broadway. Having won the Tony for Best Musical, along with awards for choreography, book of a musical, score, design and costume design, it swept the floor, proving its hard knocks less traumatic and more so dramatic gold. It even inspired the 1980’s John Huston movie, starring a lovely Carol Burnett as the drunk orphan keeper, Ms. Hannigan, and a verbose and handsome Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks.

Locally, Wilmington has seen the show’s success onstage, and Opera House Theatre Company is bringing its never-ending appeal to life once again, as “Annie” opens at Thalian Hall on Wednesday, July 6. Directed by Judy Greenhut, the show’s spectacle of memorable music and fantastical dance numbers are in good hands. First and foremost, Greenhut danced for Peter Gennaro, the original choreographer of “Annie,” in New York for years. “I hope I have brought a ‘bit of Peter’ into my work,” she says. As an instructor for both musical and dance theater, her skills have graced shows for Thalian Association, Cape Fear Academy and Opera House Theatre Company. Thus, her leadership will prove top-tier, something evident of her directing style, which she says maintains the show’s candor. “I am a traditionalist,” Greenhut notes. “I believe in the purity of the original intent and the integrity of the work.”

Considering the staunch forthrightness needed for the lead role, Greenhut has fit the bill by casting local actress Emilia Torello as the freckle-faced orphan. Better yet, she chose someone whose adoration for the play also gleams brilliantly. “Ever since I was a toddler, I have loved Annie,” Torello tells. “She is always so upbeat and always has been my role model.”

Last seen on Thalian’s stage as Tateh’s young daughter in “Ragtime,” Torello is familiar with “Annie” and not just from running around her house and singing spirited tunes like “Hard Knock Life” (isn’t this practically every little girl’s foray into possible fame?). The young actress played the orphan before in her best friend’s version of the production. However, it hasn’t stopped her from throwing every ounce of energy into nailing the role for Opera House.

“Ever since I heard they were doing ‘Annie,’ I have worked so hard to get everything perfect,” she says. “My acting, my singing, everything—just like Annie worked so hard at everything.”

It’s a large wig to fill, so to speak, but, seemingly, Torello is bringing spunky appeal and shining effervescently on every level. This includes melting the heart of a rich, hardened man, Mr. Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks. J.R. Rodriguez is quite familiar with the role, seeing as he’s worn the millionaire’s shoes before. Yet, his take on the character never tires.

“With Warbucks, he seems to always be presented as a tyrant with a heart,” Rodriguez explains. “For me, that is too easy. He has to fall in love with this kid. A person can’t just turn it on and off; there is a building process that gets lost. Warbucks doesn’t know how to deal with kids, and he has to grow into his love for Annie.”

The reality is that everyone takes to Annie’s magnetism: fellow orphans, like July, played by Emilia’s sister Arianna; Sandy, a stray on the side of the street, portrayed by Torello’s own dog, Jack; Warbucks’ staff, such as his secretary, Grace Farrel (Heather Setzler); and even politicos like President Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor. The parallel is of interest to Rodriguez politically and philosophically, especially because the production has always made an appearance in the midst of America’s hardest times.

“When the cartoon started back in the ‘20s, we were just coming off of a war and going into The Great Depression, and she brought us through,” he says. Likewise, “Annie” resurfaced in the ‘40s, around The New Deal, and in the ‘70s after the economy crashed. She came to life in the ‘90s, and will appear on Broadway again in 2012 for its 35 year anniversary.

“After the past 10 years with Washington not listening to the people of this country, our young hero, with her faithful dog and bright red dress, shows up [yet] again,” Rodriguez continues. “If Warbucks stands for anything, he stands for what America should be: A strong man that seemingly has everything, but whatever he has in his life isn’t working. Along comes this bundle of optimism that changes him for the better. Washington—and, for that matter, the city officials here—should get to the theater more. If the[y] could find their ‘Annie,’ I think things would be a lot better in this country.”

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