Cautious Optimism Refreshes ANNIE

Audiences have been delighted by productions of Annie, by playwright Thomas Meehan, since 1976. The national tour, playing at the Durham Performing Arts Center this week provides few exceptions. 

Little Orphan Annie gets the opportunity of a lifetime when billionaire Oliver Warbucks invites her to his home for two weeks over the holidays. When Warbucks falls in love with Annie and wants to adopt her, he agrees instead to make her most profound dream come true, finding her biological parents. While productions of Annie can tend toward saccharine, this tour, directed by Jenn Thompson (who played Pepper in the original Broadway run), pulls no punches when it comes to highlighting the orphan’s plight in depression-era America. 

Ellie Pulsifer, who plays the title role of Annie, raises the bar from tours past with her gritty, plucky take on the optimistic orphan. Her soaring vocals in the opening number “Maybe” combined with her raspier speaking voice beautifully balance the conflicting scapes of Annie’s personality – an orphan desperately searching for her long-promised parents while maintaining an optimism so powerful that she will inspire FDR himself to create The New Deal. 

The rest of the company is equally well-cast. Stefanie Londino elicits many laughs as the villainous Miss Hannigan. Unlike the motion picture, the play provides no redemption arc for Miss Hannigan. Despite this, Londino somehow manages to garner some sympathy as an aging single woman stuck in a government job that makes her miserable. Londino’s exquisite vocals and superb acting elevate the rest of the cast when they are onstage with her. Take the stand-out number “Easy Street” where Miss Hannigan agrees to a kidnapping plot with her brother Rooster, played by the enigmatic Nick Bernardi, and his partner in crime Lily, portrayed by Krista Curry. Their vocals combined with fabulous choreography by Patricia Wilcox will have audiences applauding them despite their malicious intent.

Christopher Swan and Julia Nicole Hunter take on the roles of Oliver Warbucks and his personal secretary, Grace Farrell. This production plays down the potential romantic relationship between the two characters and focuses instead on their individual relationships with Annie. They are joined on stage by the talented ensemble for the electric “NYC,” a number that will surely have audiences cheering. 

The cast scene stealers are, of course, the talented group of children playing the orphans and the aww-inducing Addison, the rescue canine who plays Sandy. Families will certainly walk out singing “It’s a Hard Knock Life” and talking about the perfectly still dog during Pulsifer’s gorgeous rendition of “Tomorrow.” 

The talented cast, choreography, and direction make this national tour of Annie a do-not-miss. 

Annie runs through October 23rd at the Durham Performing Arts Center. For more information visit https://www.dpacnc.com.

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