Ellie Pulsifer as Annie and Addison as Sandy in the 2022 company of ANNIE. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.
Almost everyone knows the sweet story of Little Orphan Annie. And, while she may have started out as a comic strip character (and before that a poetic subject), she’s perhaps best known for the fun-filled musical that bears her name. That same musical, which first opened in 1977 and has been made into multiple films, is now onstage at the Durham Performing Arts Center under the direction of Jenn Thompson. And, honestly, the story, set in 1933 New York, is every bit as heartwarming and joyous as it was when it was first produced.
DPAC’s production roars to life with the classic scene of Annie (Ellie Pulsifer) and her fellow orphans waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of Molly’s (Bronte Harrison) recurring nightmare. As Annie comforts her young friend, she also reveals her naïve hope that, one day, her parents will come back, get her, and save her from the life she leads under the brute force of the horrible Miss Hannigan (Stefanie Londino).
Not long after, the orphans stampede into a fun, well-choregraphed (Patricia Wilcox) version of “It’s the Hard Knock Life” that’s every bit as stomping and stern as you want it to be. And, while the title character will certainly have her chance to shine, little Bronte Harrison rules this scene. Her adorable imitations of the mean Miss Hannigan are spot-on and steal the show . . . at least for a while. Loveable pup Addison also wins over a lot of hearts with her perfect portrayal of Sandy, the stray pup that Annie attempts to rescue when she escapes to find her parents. This Sandy, trained by Bill Berloni, is sure to be the most fabulous (and furry!) one that viewers have ever seen. She sits, she stares lovingly at Annie, and she even, in her doggy way, smiles at all the right moments.
Of course, Sandy, while charming, isn’t the main focus of the first act, which is largely concentrated on Annie’s transition from orphan to Christmas-guest at rich Oliver Warbucks' (Christopher Swan’s) NYC palace. In the interim, she meets some down-on-their-luck folks in Hooverville, a scene filled with fun choreography.
“Fun,” in fact, is a perfect word to describe this tender production. Another one, though, would be “nostalgic.” This Annie is a complete throwback to past productions (and there are a great many). There are no modern touches or updated additions. Instead, it’s just the classic story, complete with mostly simple choreography and a strong reliance on a script with a lot of heart. This makes sense given that director Thompson starred as “Pepper” in the original Broadway production.
Appropriately, this version reads as if it’s trying to recapture an Annie of olden days, and the result is classic, sweet, and simple storytelling. Seeing the story performed in this way, without any “clever” new jokes thrown in, reminds viewers of what a perfect little story Annie is. It’s a story rooted in history but, more than that, rooted in love and the search for belonging, both timeless themes that still hold up well today. For evidence, one only had to look to the younger viewers in attendance at Wednesday night’s performance. They went from rapt to giggling to sniffling all in the span of two hours, serving as proof that there’s no need to mess with perfection.
And, speaking of perfection, the performers were well-cast and on point. Londino’s Miss Hannigan is every bit as mean (and drunken) as she needs to be, while Swan expertly projects the stern-but-soft personality that makes “Daddy” Warbucks so very endearing. He’s well-complemented by Julia Nicole Hunter’s kindhearted Grace, his loving (and maybe in-love) secretary. And, in the leading role, little Ellie Pulsifer is a charming, spunky doll. Her comedic timing is golden, but where she really excels is in the story’s more emotional moments. Her very real tears are sure to elicit the exact same response in viewers young and old.
Also nice here are Alejo Vietti’s crisp, clean costumes. He particularly excels when it comes to Grace’s business casual attire and Annie's orphan-turned-rich-girl wardrobe, including and especially the iconic red dress.
Ultimately, this is a surprisingly no-frills version of Annie, but that “no frills” isn’t meant as an insult. In a time rife with over-the-top productions, this one serves as a nice reminder that, at its heart, theatre is really about a simple story with human themes that resonate and transcend time. Those are qualities Annie has always had, and because the director knows that, she lets it stand on its own and shine all the brighter for it.
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