Stage Review: It's a 'Hard Knock' holiday with 'Annie' at Playhouse on the Square

Miss Hannigan (Irene Crist) and Annie (Danielle Chaum) in 'Annie' at Playhouse on the Square.

Chris Neely

Miss Hannigan (Irene Crist) and Annie (Danielle Chaum) in "Annie" at Playhouse on the Square.

Every few years, whenever Cathy Rigby hits the road with another national tour of "Peter Pan," Playhouse on the Square has to drum up a different December musical to entertain the thousands of schoolchildren bused in for their holiday field trip.

Playhouse doesn't call it a "Christmas" show. But it's horribly convenient whenever there are built-in references to Dec. 25. In "Peter Pan," the Darling children take flight to Neverland on a wintry evening after Michael screams "Christmas!" as his happy thought.

And in Playhouse's current production of "Annie," the little orphan girl arrives at the mansion of Daddy Warbucks just in time for his bounding servants to deck the halls for the holidays.

The only childhood fantasy better than Santa Claus is the one involving adoption by a billionaire. (And if there's anyone out there in need of an heir, my own last name has been left Blank for a reason. Serious inquiries only; send portfolio care of this paper.)

It is tempting — oh, so tempting — for grown-ups like me to contrive some contemporary subtext from the 1977 Broadway kiddie musical known for the Tony-winning songs "Tomorrow," "Hard Knock Life" and "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile."

Set in the midst of the Great Depression, the adaptation would likely hold little charm for the creator of the "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip.

Harold Gray wasn't known for his liberal social stances, despite his sympathy for one particular red-haired orphan. In the 1930s, he used his strip to criticize Franklin D. Roosevelt's liberal economic policies. He maintained that the jobless masses just needed a stronger work ethic.

No doubt the millionaire comic strip artist would have some heated words for the musical's creators, Charles Strouse (music), Martin Charnin (lyrics) and Thomas Meehan (book), who end the show with a rousing tribute to FDR's New Deal, of which Harold most certainly did not approve.

Another historical switcheroo that sticks out in light of current events is when Daddy Warbucks — a Republican industrialist — calls in a Supreme Court justice to preside over his adoption of Annie. The creators of the musical must have known that Louis Brandeis was the most progressive, anti-corporation jurist of his era. Warbucks and Brandeis would not have seen eye to eye.

For children, however, "Annie" is a musical about gift-giving. A little girl who has nothing but talent and personality charms a billionaire into adopting her. He lavishes her with love, presents and the happiness that she so desperately needs.

In that sense, director Dave Landis delivers a production that can rightly be called a holiday show.

Danielle Chaum, who alternates the title role with Sydney Bell, is adorably feisty. She pulls off Annie's tunes with confidence and gusto. As the evil orphanage mother Miss Hannigan, Carla McDonald (alternating with Irene Crist) never ceases to get laughs and be a terrifying gorgon at the same time.

The main factor that this production of "Annie" gets right is cuteness. The young orphans are adorable (especially Paige Hollenbeck as the tap-dancing pip-squeak Molly). Choreographer Courtney Oliver's "Hard Knock Life" has the kids scrapping and boxing the air like little prize-fighters.

When the orphans finally get hold of their sparkling presents under Warbucks' Christmas tree, the children in the audience must think it's the greatest ending to a musical ever — or at least since Peter Pan showed up with pixie dust.

'Annie'

Performances continue 7 p.m. Fridays and 2 and 7 p.m. Saturdays through Dec. 23 at Playhouse on the Square, 66 S. Cooper. Tickets are $33-$38 adults and $20 students and seniors, $15 children. Pay-what-you-can night is Dec. 22. Call (901) 726-4656.

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