Walnut Street Theatre presents Thomas Meehan and Charles Strouse’s ‘Annie’

Pluck and politics

It’s the holiday season and the Walnut Street Theatre is doing what it does best: offering a feel-good musical for adults and kids alike. Annie, Thomas Meehan and Charles Strouse’s beloved musical (based on Harold Gray’s Depression-era comic strip), follows a plucky orphan who always finds a way to make the best of a bad situation. 

Sunny and Tahlia Ellie as the unbeatable team of Sandy and Annie. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

Left on the doorstep of the New York City Orphanage by her parents with a note and half a locket when she was an infant, Annie has grown into a cheerful and caring child dreaming of a reunion with her parents.

Annie was played on opening night by Tahlia Ellie (who alternates the role with Jenna Seascholtz) with a bold and brassy voice and charm to spare. She cares for the other orphans and even stands up to the wicked (and often inebriated) matron, Miss Hannigan, played by the indomitable Mary Martello, who provides some of the evening’s standout moments. In one scene, she produces a scream that seems to last forever and can probably be heard as far away as New Jersey.

Paul Schoeffler, plays Annie’s billionaire savior Daddy Warbucks; Rebecca Robbins plays his assistant Grace Farrell; real-life married couple Christopher Sutton and Lyn Philistine play Miss Hannigan’s co-conspirators, Rooster Hannigan and Lily; and, of course, there’s Sunny as Sandy the dog. Each supports and challenges our plucky heroine.

The ensemble plays homeless residents of Hooverville in one scene, elegant servants in the next, then national politicians. This crew includes favorite local performers such as Ben Dibble, Melissa Joy Hart, and Fran Prisco.  

The set (designed by Robert Andrew Kovach) and costumes (by Mary Folino) transport us back to 1930s New York, contrasting the sparseness of the orphanage with the hustle of a city street and the elegance of Daddy Warbucks’s Fifth Avenue mansion.

A New Deal for Christmas

With familiar songs like “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” and the relentlessly optimistic “Tomorrow” ringing in our ears, we cannot help but leave the theater feeling hopeful.

However, watching anything these days, for me, is a juggling act between enjoying the moment and looking for larger implications. Are there political overtones? Should I be paying attention to gender inequities? Does the storyline pass muster in today’s climate?

Annie points time and again at the political overtones of poverty, the Depression, a looming war with Germany, and opposition to the president’s policies. Gray used his comic strip to express his views on a variety of issues, even removing Daddy Warbucks from its frames while Roosevelt was in office.

While this production focuses squarely on a positive view of the world, it is, perhaps, also a reminder that this country has survived difficult times. While thinking about “Tomorrow” may not inspire a New Deal-type compromise in the current political climate, perhaps there is something better in store in the days to come. 

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