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Leapin’ Lizards: ‘Annie’ comes to Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

By John Millman-Dwyer

I stay away from sugar. I refrain from dessert. I only buy ice cream when it is on sale and I have a coupon, at which time I think it is a sign from God that I should eat it. I stayed away from “Annie” when it was on Broadway. I thought, “Oh, please! Betcha’ bottom dollar this, you half-pint.” It sounded like commercial tripe, but I was wrong.

I saw it years later, after falling in love with the amazing Dorothy Loudon, who was catapulted to stardom after a long theatrical career preceding her role as Ms. Hannigan, Annie’s arch-nemesis. I saw “Jerry’s Girls” and “Ballroom” with Loudon before I would allow “Annie” in. I thought that Loudon had such wonderful talent and taste, I should look at “Annie” based on her tacit approval of it and see if I go into insulin shock. And I liked it.

I like it even more with the current cast at Music Mountain, who are giving it their all in this production.

Plucky — a word I never use — gets used now. Annie is plucky. The story of Miss Annie is an interesting one.

It is based on a comic strip that was inspired by an 1885 poem that certain people of my generation might be familiar with by James Whitcomb Riley called “Little Orphant Annie.” (The “t” in Orphant is not a typo). Originally, the poem had been called “The Elf Child,” but the name changed to “Little Orphant Annie” on its third printing. (As an aside, it was supposed to have been called “Little Orphant Allie” but the printer made a typesetting mistake. I hope people named Allie don’t feel cheated.) The poem is about an orphan who reads ghost stories, as a cautionary tale, to the children she is with in foster care. Each stanza ended with “An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you ef you don’t watch out!” Along with Little Black Sambo, it was one of the major stories of “Better Homes and Gardens Story Book” that so many children in the 1950’s had on their bookshelves. This was one of our bedtime stories. How those stories in that incarnation affected my “Boomer” generation is fodder for another article.

The cartoon strip was started by Harold Gray in 1924 after meeting an orphan on the streets of Chicago named Annie. He remembered the poem and pitched his strip to the Chicago Tribune, who decided to run it. In the strip, Gray espouses conservative values of hard work, respect for others and a “can do” philosophy. He did not like FDR and the New Deal. It is hinted at but never explicit in the musical, but his anti-Roosevelt feelings did come out in the strip.

The musical changed the story that was in the strip, keeping the characters of Annie and Daddy Warbucks, but jettisoning Mrs. Warbucks (a social climber) and the political edginess that were explicit at the cartoon strip’s height of popularity.

The story in the musical is that our carrot-topped Annie is an eleven-year-old at the orphanage run by a Miss Agatha Hannigan. When her parents abandoned her there, they left a note saying that they would come back. Miss Hannigan is a poor, middle-aged spinster at the end of her wits dealing with “Little Girls,” (a song that bemoans her plight). She is brusque, to say the least, with them and works them to the bone. Annie escapes the orphanage to look for her parents, only to be returned. While she was on her search, she finds another soul alone in the world, a dog she names “Sandy.” She sings about how she hopes for a better life “tomorrow.” She is found by a policeman and returned to the orphanage.

While Annie is in Miss Hannigan’s office, Grace Farrell arrives. She is the personal assistant to billionaire Oliver Warbucks and wants to bring an orphan back to the Warbucks Mansion for the Christmas holiday. This largesse is to bring joy to an orphan and to fill the mansion itself with the joy of a child. As Annie endears herself to Warbucks and the entire staff, Miss Hannigan is visited by her brother Daniel “Rooster” Hannigan and his girl, Lily St. Regis. Warbucks wants to find Annie’s parents for her and offers a reward of $50,000 to find them. He even goes so far as to announce the reward on radio, with radio star Bert Healy. Rooster, Miss Hannigan and Lily plot to get the money and more, and come up with a scheme. It looks like Annie is in trouble.

“Gee, whillikers! How can that be?” Of course, all gets resolved, amid a ton of fun songs and good cheer.

The show runs for four weeks. For the orphans and Annie herself, cast members will vary depending on which weekend you go. All adult roles are cast for the full four weeks. I went the first weekend when Jamyson Bultemeier played Annie. She is a fine young actress, having notably appeared as the neighbor Gloria in “Wait Until Dark” at Music Mountain. Her Annie is spirited, yet sweet and she belts out “Tomorrow” with gusto. She also is the proud parent of scene stealer Russell Bultemeier, who is Sandy the dog. Kudos to the adorable Jocelyn Willis as Molly, the youngest orphan. Willis is a great dancer and singer. She is the very meaning of the word “cute” and has a lot of spunk.

Shout out to the other great orphans who make the song “It’s a Hard Knock Life” a standout. They include Kate Jones (Pepper), Ava Apelt (Duffy), Alexandra Shedlock (July), Madelyn Crawford (Tessie) and Lily Freeman (Kate).

Erin Looney is a hilarious Miss Hannigan. The role requires a likeable villain and needs comedic chops. Looney scores big and wrings out every line to get every laugh possible. She does it by being real. She is the woman at the bar who you would like to buy a drink for because she is funny but no one you want to have as a babysitter. Her singing “Little Girls” was nothing short of gut-splitting hilarious. She is later joined by her brother Rooster played by Jeff Stephens and his doll, Lily St. Regis played by Jaime Geddes. Geddes is always excellent, but Stephens exudes stunning cockiness as “Rooster,” making it impossible not to focus on him. With a Fosse-esque strut and legs akimbo, he dances like he is cock of the walk. A very impressive performance.

Jennifer Fisher has been given a role of a normal person and shines in it. Fisher has a wonderful voice, which in the past has been exhibited in shows where she wasn’t even human. She garnered raves as Ursula the Sea Witch in “The Little Mermaid” and Lady of the Lake in “Spamalot.” She is wonderful as the kind, loving and definitely more stable Grace Farrell. She has the most beautiful voice, as continuously gets noted in her reviews. Daddy Warbucks is not only awash in money, but also in talent. Donald Hallcom is known for a rich voice, as well, but what equally impresses is the slow melt of a stony billionaire. It is subtle. It is honest. And it makes his solo song, “Something Was Missing,” one of the highlights of the evening.

A shout out to Eddie Honan as radio star Bert Healey and to Maurice Charles as a ventriloquist and other roles. But as for the ventriloquist, there are no words.

Louis Palena did a great job directing. Along with Jordan Brennan, they did the choreography. Jordan, also, did a fine job with costumes.

The show runs to Nov. 24, and tickets are available online. Don’t wait ‘til “tomorrow” to buy tickets. Buy today, before this popular show gets sold out.

The cast for this coming week will have Stevie Sanderson-Bowden as Annie, with orphans Lily Mueller as Molly, Arielle Gelb as Pepper, Gianna Griffiths as Duffy, Lucy Spiegel as July, Lina Weiland as Tessie and Bella Scheffler as Kate.

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