The musical “Annie,” based on the Little Orphan Annie comic strip of Depression-era fame, has been inspiring little girls to audition for the title role for more than 40 years, since it won the Tony Award for best musical in 1977.
A shortened youth version, “Annie Jr.,” likewise brings out dozens of aspiring children to audition for roles as one of the ragged little wretches who inhabit Miss Hannigan’s horrid New York City orphanage. The South Valley Civic Theatre production, through May 12 in Morgan Hill, is entirely cast with young people and stripped of most of the political overtones of the original, which offered up songs critiquing President Herbert Hoover.
“Annie Jr.” focuses more on hope and optimism, as delivered through the iconic tunes “Tomorrow” and “You’re Never Really Dressed Without a Smile,” and my own favorite from the show, “Maybe,” with its wistful wish for a happy-ever-after.
The story turns on the title character, 11-year-old Annie, an urchin left at the orphanage by her impoverished parents along with a letter saying they’ll be back for her someday. She is plucked from the orphanage through the largess of Oliver Warbucks, a one-percenter who adopts an orphan each year for the holidays, showering the child with gifts, a new wardrobe and a chance to see the finer things in life. Warbucks is so taken by Annie that he launches a coast-to-coast search for her parents, which naturally attracts the attention of grifters, who impersonate Annie’s family.
The cast of children and teenagers, directed by Colleen Blanchard, do a generally fine job, easiest when they are closest in age to their characters.
Tegan Leong exudes the kind of spunky enthusiasm necessary to play a cockeyed optimist, and has mastered Annie’s “aw, gee” delivery. She wears Annie’s signature bright-red dress but has eschewed the curly red wig in favor of her own dark locks, and makes up for a lack of volume in her singing voice with pretty intonation and lots of emotion. She establishes good on-stage rapport with a real, live Sandy (played alternately by golden retrievers Bailey and Mason) as she sings “Tomorrow.”
Isabella Rosal’s Miss Hannigan is a hoot, laying on a thick Brooklyn accent as she orders her unruly charges around.
Leah Grifall is all easy elegance as Warbucks’ secretary Grace, and Oliver Kaelin as Rooster and Makayla Hoiberg as Lily St. Regis are delightfully evil (and none too smart) on “Easy Street” as they see their way up the social ladder.
James Tuttle softens up some through the course of the musical as Daddy Warbucks, establishing a solid connection to Annie for “I Don’t Need Anything But You.”
Look for a variety of local luminaries to play the role of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the show. On opening night it was Marty Cheek, with Alan Chipman, Jay Hanson, Gene Sakahara, Johnathan Spencer and Steve Tate in the lineup.
“Annie Jr.” Music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin, book by Thomas Meehan. Directed by Colleen Blanchard. Presented by South Valley Civic Theatre at the Morgan Hill Community Playhouse. Through May 12. www.svct.org.