The Sunny Side: 'Annie' is a delightful ray of light this winter

Rich Ryan

Rich Ryan

You may have forgotten that Annie is a Christmas show, but you’ll certainly remember by the time those plucky orphans are throwing their heads back and singing their hearts out like a caffeinated Peanuts gang.

The seasonal setting isn’t anywhere so mundane as Whoville or Santa’s workshop: It’s a distant world where a Republican billionaire pressures a Democratic president to push a massive government initiative that will create economic security for millions—and never once does anyone use the word “entitlements.”

That billionaire is Daddy Warbucks, played with gruff glee by Lance Roberts in the Ordway’s big-hearted new production of the 1977 musical inspired by Harold Gray’s Depression-era comic strip. Roberts’ Warbucks is just as rambunctious as Carly Gendell’s Annie, and the pair have an affectionate, playful rapport.

This isn’t the kind of show where the stars get to have all the fun, though, and director Austene Van fills her stage with exuberant performances that almost dare you not to smile. Van’s orphans positively glory in their musical hijinks, with vivid personality and sure comic timing.

The songs by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin are so good that it’s hard to totally screw this show up, and in a strong production like this one, they’re rocket fuel. Credit choreographer Lewis E. Whitlock III with fun vintage-flavored dances that the cast exult in, with a contagious enthusiasm that seems completely genuine.

Playwright Thomas Meehan created a trio of villains you love to hate, and Van struck gold with her casting of Michele Ragusa as Miss Hannigan, with Britton Smith as Rooster and Cat Brindisi as Lily St. Regis. When they dance together in “Easy Street,” they’re as thick as thieves and slyly sensual. Ragusa nails her show-stopper “Little Girls,” while Van ensures the scene belongs as much to the young tormenters as it does to Hannigan.

The set, based on Ming Cho Lee’s original design, whisks the action rapidly back and forth across New York City, with a quick trip to Washington and a climactic confrontation on Warbucks’ grand staircase. Don Darnutzer’s lighting helps corral our attention in the busy tableaux, and aside from a little wobbly brass, musical director Jeff Rizzo keeps a sure hand in the orchestra pit.

The story essentially asks us to believe that one little girl’s optimistic spirit pulled an entire country out of a rut. As America’s sweetheart, Gendell is a ray of unremitting sunshine, confident but not saccharine. The real star of this spectacularly entertaining production, though, is its director. Best-known as an actor, Van works wonders with this classic musical on the Ordway’s starry stage, channeling a palpable sense of joy. This Annie has a special spring in its step, making it a standout celebration of pure razzle-dazzle.

Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
345 Washington St., St. Paul
651-224-4222; through December 31