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Theater review: Theatre Charlotte's Annie



"The sun will come out tomorrow" has never been stop-the-presses news, but sung by a plucky little orphan girl, the cliché has been melting the hearts of theatergoers ever since Annie hit Broadway in 1977. For generations of pre-teen girls, the first bite of the theater bug was prepping to audition for the title role, standing near a piano and belting out Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin's most beloved song.

Thomas Meehan, who also penned the books for The Producers and Hairspray, chipped in with a pretty sharp script here, too. "Call up Al Smith," snaps plutocrat Oliver Warbucks, "and find out what Democrats eat!" Of course, watching the little redhead melt the bald-pated Warbucks is one of the paramount delights of Annie after she has smitten us. Perhaps we're inwardly pleading "No more, please!" after mass onslaughts of floor-swabbing orphanettes and their "Hard Knock Life," but then we have the salty consolations of "Hooverville" and the multiple misadventures of the raffish Hannigan sibs and Lily St. Regis.

Broadway revived the comic strip musical briefly in 1997, but the current Theatre Charlotte revival seems far more propitiously timed as we edge past the trough of a deep recession, unsure whether we're destined to dip again. There are moments, when we're at the orphanage or out on the town in "N.Y.C.," that the production itself seems somewhat strapped financially. But that visit to Hooverville is very sobering, reminding us of the difference between the Great Depression and our current woes. If optimism and grassroots solidarity were possible then, why not now?

The beauties of the Queens Road Annie run deeper than its uneven set designs, or its lighting and sound snafus. Chemistry between Warbucks and Annie is easily the best we've seen during the Loaf Era, which includes at least three other Annies — regular-sized, Jr., and touring — since the last time Theatre Charlotte curled the redhead in 1991. After some hilariously heartless, bitchy roles in recent years, including the Evil Stepmother in Cinderella, Steve Bryan reminds us how warm and superbly controlled he can be onstage as Warbucks. Watch the billionaire with Annie at the radio station or at the White House, even when he isn't speaking, and you'll see an elegant man suffused with paternal pride. And he's likely the best dancer in this entire mammoth cast.

Hannah Gundersheim complements Bryan wonderfully in her debut as Annie, though it may sound harsh when I explain why. She has a very good voice, but not in the America's Got Talent class. Cuteness and plucky appeal are there, but not in Shirley Temple mega-doses, and there's no superabundance of acting polish. In short, she's real, an Annie totally devoid of Disney veneer.

In that realistic spirit, director Ron Law has given the idea for the New Deal back to FDR. What he does with Miss Hannigan, subtly shifting Chase Law away from the soused loudmouth template of Dorothy Loudon and Carol Burnett, paradoxically turns Annie's vile surrogate mother into more of a monster. If anything should have been revamped, it's likely the choreography of "Easy Street." Yet Law, Winston Sims as Rooster, and Emily Hunter as Lily are a totally crowd-pleasing trio for first-timers.

The depth of this cast far transcends community theater norms with Ted Weiner as FDR, Corey Mitchell as Warbucks' butler Drake, and Josh Looney in multiple choice cameos, including a cop, a goofball ventriloquist, and the vaudeville member of FDR's cabinet. Jamey Varnadore's multitudinous costumes befit the most humble and the most regal, and the Chris Timmons set rises to the occasion when we arrive at the Warbucks Mansion, even when it's decked out for Christmas.

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