Adopt ‘Annie’ for holidays

Annie, the 1977 Tony Award-winning musical from the skillful hands of Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, is not usually thought of as a Christmas show, but it does possess many features of such holiday favorites as A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life.

If the show no longer has the ability to catch an audience unawares with its retro charm or power-lunged tykes, Annie remains solid commercial family entertainment.

The Walnut Street Theatre production of the classic musical about the plucky Depression-era orphan and her colorful cohorts turns out to be a tuneful surprise. It is straightforward and sufficiently warm without being sappy.

It feels like an actual story rather than a contrived piece of singsong mush. Pretty impressive stuff. So is the spiffy performance of Ashlee Keating as Annie (alternating the role with Arianna Claire Vogel), who manages to steal our hearts with well-modulated ease. Cute but not cloying, the young actress has the big voice long associated with the role and the similarly familiar steely edges.

Annie symbolizes the hard times of the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933. The positive values in this musical emphasize decency, courage and optimism in the face of pessimism and despair.

The story begins with Annie caught in an orphanage of Dickensian horrors, presided over by a formidable, liquor-swilling meanie, Miss Hannigan. Fate steps in when Oliver Warbucks, one of the richest men in the world, wants an orphan to spend Christmas with him. His secretary chooses Annie. Warbucks takes her to the White House, where her rendition of Tomorrow inspires FDR to conceive the New Deal. Even J. Edgar Hoover is recruited to help find Annie’s real parents. When the FBI discovers her parents are dead, Warbucks adopts Annie. He and Annie share all of their adventures with her loyal dog, Sandy.

The plot is virtually without conflict since it takes no time at all for the little heroine to melt the tycoon heart of Daddy Warbucks, and the chief villain, Miss Hannigan, is played more for laughs than menace. Nothing disturbs the show’s air of amiable nostalgia.

Over the last three decades, Annie and its story of an orphan girl and a hard-nosed billionaire who find love in Depression-era New York has been pegged as a kiddie show. But it is far more than that. When the once-affluent residents of a shantytown express their bewilderment at the dire straits the stock market crash has left them in, the chill is all too real for those who have seen jobs and retirement funds disappear in the last two years of market decline.

For all its wholesome trappings, Annie has a daring soul — one that does not shrink from the yawning gap between glittering privilege and bleak poverty. At a time when most people are crippled with varying degrees of fear, Annie’s lonely characters dare to reach across that dangerous gap, in search of either love or ill-gotten fortune. The fortune hunters are consumed by their own greed — those who openly seek love find it, despite all the odds.

The Walnut’s Annie boasts a talented cast well worth cheering. As Daddy Warbucks, Patrick Quinn has the requisite deep voice and formal but warm chemistry with Annie. Any actor playing Warbucks must convey, with few words, a growing fatherly attachment to the urchin, and Quinn does it well.

Deborah Jean Templin is marvelous as the humorously delirious Miss Hannigan. She gives a broad and very effective performance, wringing every ounce of comedy out of this character role — a tipsy dame with a likeable sneer. No one will resist Don Burroughs’ deliciously oily Rooster Hannigan, or the mischievous glee he brings to Easy Street. Two surefire standouts in supporting roles are Ed Romanoff as Bert Healy and Lee Golden as Drake. It’s a large ensemble cast, but for some reason, Dan Schiff noticeably overlaps in four roles.

It would take one hardhearted soul to withstand the charms of the chorus of orphans who sing their hearts out. The six orphan girls (actually 12, with different performers for matinees and evenings) are small in numbers, but make up for it in talent and vitality as they rip through the orphans’ lament, It’s a Hard-Knock Life, and the buoyant You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.

Oh, and then there’s the dog. The original Sandy was a big draw in the show. His original trainer, Bill Berloni, has done the honors again here with Lola, a scruffy and utterly adorable dead-ringer for that rescued pooch — a real show-stealer.

Charles Kading’s cartoon cutout set is heavy on the painted backdrops, more efficient than eye-popping, and seems modest by Walnut standards. Only an urchin would be dazzled by the interior of the Warbucks mansion.

The music and vocal direction of Sherman Frank is first-rate and director Charles Abbott works wonders in keeping the show tight and the movement swift.

If you are looking for a real holiday treat, no need to sit through another numbing Radio City spectacle — catch the Walnut’s Annie.

Through Jan. 4
Walnut Street Theater
825 Walnut St.
Tickets: $10-$60