“Annie” is impossible not to love

Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmermann for MurphyMade

OK, you already know this one, don’t you? Since its 1977 debut, Annie has been by far the best family musical around. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how calloused your emotions are. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve seen it before. Or seen it so many times you know it by heart. The tough, red-headed orphan at the center of this depression-era show, not to mention the other girls stuck in Miss Hannigan’s sweatshop orphanage, win you over as quickly as she wins over the staff at Warbucks Mansion…which is to say instantaneously. Unless a production bombed completely or the actors had no emotional connections, this is truly a director-proof show. Not that it needs to be: director Jenn Thompson and choreographer Patricia Wilcox make it come wonderfully alive.

Thompson and Wilcox do not try to reinvent the wheel here, but they update the staging where it makes sense to do so, and throughout, they add touches that make it their own. Fortunately, they are blessed with an excellent cast, especially the orphans themselves, who are so adorable that they should have been adopted on their first days under Miss Hannigan’s drunken “care.” If they had been, though, there would not be a show.

The basics of this one are by now well-known:

Miss Hannigan (Stefanie Lundino), who hates little girls, is paid by the city of New York to run an orphanage full of them. The one she detests most is Annie (Ellie Pulsifer), a popular girl who strongly believes that her parents will still come for her though she’s been there for eleven years. Hannigan makes “her” girls work hard (at one point admonishing them that she wants the floor to “shine like the top of the Chrysler Building” when they are finished with it). All of them, of course, dream of finding a family…almost as much as they dream of “yank(ing) the whiskers from her chin” instead of being forced constantly to tell this vile, needy monster that they love her.

Enter Oliver Warbucks (Christopher Swan), the self-made billionaire. He’s gotten it into his head that he’d love to have an orphan stay with him for the Christmas holidays, so he sends his personal secretary Grace Farrell (Julia Nicole Hunter) to choose one. Of course, she chooses Annie and, though Warbucks had expected a boy, he is won over easily by the preternaturally perfect child: intelligent, adorable, thoughtful, and prone to hugging. Only a minor subplot in which Hannigan’s brother Rooster (Nick Bernardi) and his girlfriend-of-the-moment, Lily (Krista Curry) pretend to be those long-lost parents delays the inevitable happy ending.

All of these performers are excellent, but no one more so than Pulsifer, who endows Annie with such an infectious level of exuberance and joie de vivre that you simply cannot help loving her. (To up the ante, as if she needed to, she befriends a stray dog—whom she names Sandy for his color—so things are even more stacked against the cynics in the audience.) Pulsifer also has a knockout voice and shows it off from the start with “Maybe” and “Tomorrow,” two of the most well-known of the show’s songs.

In the orphanage, she is a leader, such a friend to all the other girls that they don’t even give her too much crap for telling the story of her parents’ leaving her a note promising to return over and over and over until each of them can say it along with her. (Those girls get to show off and have great fun with the well-choreographed “It’s The Hard Knock Life” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” the latter of which has them making fun of a radio program they’ve just heard Annie singing on, as Warbucks, having heard her sad tale, pulls out all of the stops to find her parents. He even offers a $50,000 check—remember it is 1932—if they come forth.)

Lundino oozes disgust as Hannigan drinks to forget the “hard knocks” of her own that have left her living a dull, repetitive life with all of these detestable “Little Girls.” When her brother Rooster is released from the pen and shows up with Lily, the trio concoct the aforementioned scheme to take Annie from Warbucks and get the reward money before Rooster kills her. But it’s not “Easy Street” they find, as they have not planned on how they can deal with a man who has the FBI and even President Roosevelt (Mark Woodard milking it for all it is worth) on the 30s equivalent of speed dial.

As Warbucks, Swan has all of the necessary gravitas as well as the ability to let us see the human being beneath it. As he takes Annie and Grace on a walk to see “NYC,” it’s easy to see the boy he once was in the joy he now feels about his home. As they walk together, the little group takes on the veneer of a couple out with their child…and that is exactly what ultimately would make them all happiest.

Happiness, of course, is what a musical that dares to take us into a comic version of a Hooverville encampment and juxtaposes that with the singing and dancing staff of Warbucks Mansion and an orphanage wants to give us. And honestly, as this is probably the most feel-good play in the world and this is a sparkling production, I think it’s reasonable to predict that everyone in the audience (especially all the little girls) will leave with smiles on their faces.

Broadway in Chicago presents Annie at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, through March 19.

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