Haul out the hankies. "Annie" is back, this time at Saddleback College in a vivid production that finds big, rowdy laughs to accompany the expected sentimentality.
Make no mistake about it, "Annie" is still a shamelessly sentimental show. Only the hardest of hearts wouldn't melt at the sight of these young orphans huddled in narrow beds, wistfully crooning a lullaby of hope. Listen carefully and you'll hear the sound of heartstrings being tugged. And they are tugged expertly here by a wholly endearing band of young actresses led by the poised Heather Redfern as the unsinkable red-haired moppet of comic strip fame.
The sentimentality stakes are raised even higher in the relationship between Annie and Daddy Warbucks. Rick Franklin invests Warbucks with generous warmth, his commanding presence concealing an incurably soft heart. Who would suspect that the fierce industrial shark turns out to be a teddy bear in disguise?
But director Sheryl Donchey balances all that with some big laughs that center on the rowdy shenanigans of Miss Hannigan, matron of the orphanage. Adriane Coros borrows Carol Burnett's interpretation from the film version, which paints Hannigan as a self-pitying lush driven to drink and general nastiness by life. (Coros also borrows many of Burnett's mannerisms and vocal inflections.) It's an approach that allows for plenty of physical comedy, and Coros capitalizes skillfully on it.
Add Johnny O'Cullen as Miss Hannigan's rotten-to-the-core brother, Rooster, and Lauren Sterling as his sleazy, gum-chomping girlfriend, Lily St. Regis (like the hotel, donchaknow?). They contribute finely drawn portrayals of three low-down and dirty opportunists and embellish them with precise comic detail. Their heartfelt version of "Easy Street" has them swooning at the thought of all those greenbacks to be conned out of Warbucks, and their gleeful anticipation sends them reeling across the stage.
Between the sentimentality and the bawdy comedy are some overt political overtones, which largely disappeared when the musical was translated into film. The politics of the Great Depression and its toll in human dignity are spelled out here in a rabble-rousing production number called "Hooverville." When Annie goes AWOL from the orphanage, she winds up in a shantytown of the unemployed, who sing a bitter lament about their plight. The glittering lights of New York City twinkle in contrast with the despair downstage as Donchey's choreography pointedly underscores the irony of the lyrics.
Politics surface again in the reprise (one of the them, anyway) of "Tomorrow"--that anthem to optimism--when FDR, presiding over a Cabinet meeting, is so inspired by Annie's faith in the future that he invents the New Deal on the spot. It is so unlikely that it works.
Both these production numbers spotlight the hard-working chorus, whose versatile members pop up throughout the production as police officers, butlers, radio entertainers, dogcatchers and dignitaries.
This production looks--and sounds--terrific. The orchestra work, under the musical direction of Dennis Castellano, is crisp. The only glitch comes when staging places the orphans out of microphone range in several sections of dialogue and song.
The looming New York cityscape designed by Wally Huntoon that serves as a backdrop is all exaggerated angles and whimsical scope, evocatively lit by Kevin Cook. Against its looming presence, an empty stage is transformed into a bustling metropolis in Daddy Warbucks' love song to Gotham, "N.Y.C." In some inspired staging, Donchey unleashes a crowd of New Yorkers to board the subway, then shows them emerging moments later at their destination across town.
"ANNIE" A Saddleback College production. Book by Thomas Meehan. Music by Charles Strouse. Lyrics by Martin Charnin. Director, choreographer Sheryl Donchey. With Heather Redfern, Joelle Abbott, Aly Panichi, Jennifer Seifert, Lyndie Nitkin, Cyndi Schreiber, Monica Morrison, Rick Franklin, Susan Hoffman, Adriane Coros, Johnny O'Cullen, Lauren Sterling, Richard G. Rodgers. Musical director Dennis Castellano. Set design Wally Huntoon. Costume design Charles Castagno. Lighting and sound design Kevin Cook. Plays at 8 p.m. today, Saturday, Thursday, next Friday and Aug. 1.; 3 p.m. matinees Saturday, Sunday and Aug. 1 and 2. Closes Aug. 2. Tickets $10; $9 seniors and students. McKinney Theatre, Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. (714) 582-4656.