Who would have thought the ever-rosy musical Annie would offer grim news reports about how Middle America is coping with the current economic meltdown?
There's a surprising nowness that emerges from this Depression-era classic with its expected chorus line of high-kicking orphan waifs, too-cute dog and that carrot-top comic strip heroine.
Oliver Warbucks, the billionaire industrialist, complains about the stock market bust and his many shuttered factories before urging the president of the United States to do something and "do it fast." Sound familiar?
Americans, circa 1933, who had lost their homes and their fortunes, banded together in a Dickensian shantytown, mocking the previous president for his "help" in the taunting tune We'd Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover -- or was that George W. Bush's name we heard?
When the president and his top economic advisers begin touting and singing (?) about the greatest public works program ever launched to get America working again, it was hard to hear what lyricist Martin Charnin rhymed with shovel-ready.
Charnin, the original director of the Tony-winning 1977 family favourite, is back helming the American, non-union, touring production that dropped by for a couple nights at the Centennial Concert Hall. It drew a pretty strong opening night crowd of about 1,600 that was filled with kids, some already in their pajamas to hasten the late tuck-in after Annie's long 160-minute sit.
There are quibbles to be made about this road show, but the musical's sweetness still shines through. There is not nearly enough Sandy, the stray mutt that drew loud "awwww"s from the audience whenever he appeared. The littlest orphan girl Molly, played by scene-stealer MacKenzie Aladjem, was right off the adorable meter.
In the title role, Madison Kerth is a plucky charmer in this updated, female version of Oliver Twist that also boasts an air of Slumdog Millionaire. Kerth has a strong, clear voice that is best displayed in Maybe, a lament for the parents Annie has never known. After she escapes the orphanage, Kerth sails effortlessly through the notorious showstopper, that ode to optimism Tomorrow.
David Barton possesses an appealing stage presence as Oliver Warbucks, a gruff guy who barks orders at underlings but is a total pushover for Annie. The most faithful character to the musical's comic strip roots is Miss Hannigan, the deliciously bad, booze-swilling warden of the orphanage. Lynn Andrews' mugging and buffoonery milk all the broad comedy from her hissable part.
What you can take away from Annie is the 11-year-old's cure for the recession blues: spend more time, not money, with family and friends.
Centennial Concert Hall
Three and a half stars