Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Local actors shine in sunny, sweet musical

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No matter what the weather, the sun'll come out every night at Rainbow Stage's uplifting production of Annie.

The exuberant Depression-era musical about an 11-year-old's search for the parents who left her on an orphanage doorstep may be naive in its optimism. (Hey, as Annie observes at one point, if you're reduced to using newspapers for blankets, at least you can read in bed.)

It may be a wish-fulfilment fantasy on a grand scale: Who doesn't want a billionaire like Oliver (Daddy) Warbucks to rescue them from drudgery and lavish them with gifts and affection?

But the show that opened Thursday at the Kildonan Park stage is also a Cinderella story whose plucky heroine earns her happy ending by staying honest, unselfish, open-hearted and upbeat in spite of being abused.

Kudos to nine-year-old Transcona resident Zoë Adam for pumping out those qualities in her endearing performance in the title role.

If Zoë is less polished in her stage posture and dancing than some of her fellow orphans, she makes up for it in spunk and a huge, pure, unaffected voice. During the first act, that voice -- amplified by a head-set microphone -- was so penetrating that it became unpleasantly piercing at times. It was better modulated later on.

The hardest knock suffered by Annie here is having to wear a copper pageboy wig for most of the show (she doesn't get her trademark curls until the adoption ceremony). Although the smooth pageboy has been pulled back off Zoë's face, making it not quite as ridiculous as it is in the program photos, the decision to use it is bizarre.

Unruly red curls are an essential part of Annie's iconic identity, dating back to her debut in 1924 in the comic strip Little Orphan Annie. It's as misguided to tamper with them as it would be to put hair on Warbucks' bald pate.

This production of the 1977 Broadway hit is an impressive showcase for local talent. Thirty-four out of 35 cast members, as well as skilled director Donna Fletcher and choreographer Kimberley Rampersad, are Winnipeggers. The true-to-period sets and costumes are rented from a California company, augmented with local pieces.

As Warbucks, the profit-obsessed industrialist who allows Annie to spend Christmas at his New York mansion and has his heart melted by her, Kevin Aichele could be more aloof initially. But he's just about perfect after that, his voice an effortless delight, especially on the waltzing love song Something Was Missing.

Paula Potosky as Warbucks' kindly assistant Grace, Tom Soares as the scummy villain Rooster, Samantha Hill as the floozy Lily, Tim Gledhill as radio crooner Bert Healy and Steven Ratzlaff as the slightly dotty Franklin D. Roosevelt are all superb.

As Miss Hannigan, the frowsy, gin-swilling warden of the near-Dickensian orphanage, Debbie Maslowsky can't avoid comparison to Carol Burnett, the brilliantly monstrous Miss Hannigan in the 1982 movie. Maslowsky is funny, but could milk more out of the outrageous kid-hating harridan.

Still, the burlesque number Easy Street, in which she, Rooster and Lily plot their fraudulent claim on Annie, is the highlight of the show.

The dozen girls who play the raggedy orphans are sensational. With fierce, unified energy, they nail Hard Knock Life, the famous knockabout number about their miserable existence. Meaghan Moloney is an adorable audience favourite as the littlest orphan.

With tunes -- some of them forgettable -- by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin and book by Thomas Meehan, Annie is not in the same league as classic kid-centred musicals like Oliver! and The Wizard of Oz. But it's a crowd-pleaser that flies by, despite clocking in at two hours and 45 minutes including intermission.

Adults can savour the witty historical snapshot of 1933, with references to the likes of Babe Ruth, Eliot Ness, J.P. Morgan and Louis Brandeis, and tart reminders of economic devastation that offset the tale's sweetness.

Jake, the cute-as-heck local mutt who plays Sandy, acquitted himself well on opening night. It's delightful to see him cross the stage in the midst of big ensemble numbers.

The stage show lacks the movie's action-adventure elements (and the exotic characters of Punjab and the Asp), but expresses Annie's yearning for a family more clearly and poignantly.

By the time the signature song Tomorrow is reprised at the end, even if your day was grey and lonely, you'll just stick out your chin, and grin and... You know the rest.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2012 G3

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