The Paramount Theatre's production of "Annie" is unquestionably a big holiday gift for audiences. Not only is this "Annie" a great, solid production, it's also amazing that the historic Aurora theater was able to obtain the licensing rights to stage this beloved 1977 musical while a separate Broadway revival of the same show is simultaneously running in New York.
So local theatergoers can give thanks that they won't have to spring for a New York vacation if they want to get their fill of the iconic redheaded title orphan as she searches for her long-lost parents and belts out "Tomorrow," the hit anthem that gets reprised aplenty.
"Annie"★ ★ ★
Location: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, (630) 896-6666, paramountaurora.com
Showtimes: 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 30. No shows Dec. 12, 19, 20, 26 or 27; extra 10 a.m. matinee Tuesday, Dec. 11.
Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes with intermission
Parking: Area garages and metered street parking
Rating: For all ages
Die-hard fans of the show will note, and perhaps grumble, about cosmetic changes that diverge from traditional "Annie" stagings.
At the top of the show, director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell trumpets her own approach by showing the typically unseen abandonment of infant Annie at the orphanage. Rockwell then turns things over to her respective set and projections design team of Linda Buchanan and Mike Tutaj, who illustrate the overture with insightfully chosen Depression-era photographs of New York City kids living rough and scores of out-of-work men on the bread lines.
Rockwell's scenic approach to go with projections roots the musical firmly in its historical era, though "Annie" ultimately feels very relevant amid our own current global economic crisis and ongoing debates on how to decrease unemployment.
Other staging decisions are more debatable.
With the casting of the Christine Sherrill as the boozy orphanage matron Miss Hannigan, Rockwell eschews the "Annie" tradition of the role typically being played by comediennes made to look frumpy. Yet Sherrill makes the role work by emphasizing her character's alcoholism so that while her shapely Miss Hannigan might still turn many a man's head, her drinking and crass attitude are anything but attractive.
Rockwell includes the Daddy Warbucks ballad "Why Should I Change a Thing," which was written by the original "Annie" songwriting team of Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin for a 2004 Australian production. The song itself isn't that memorable and it adds to the length of an already long Act I, though it does give Gene Weygandt as Warbucks another chance to show off his fine voice.
And on a superficial visual level, Harold Gray's famed comic strip illustrations are largely ignored by Rockwell with Daddy Warbucks maintaining his full head of hair rather than going bald and Annie's curly comic hairdo AWOL during the show's finale.
But aside from these traditionalist qualms, there is much to celebrate with Rockwell's "Annie." which is professionally staged and wonderfully sung with a full orchestra under the direction of Evan Rea.
In the title role, 12-year-old Caroline Heffernan brings a spunky edge to Annie, plus a few gymnastic touches on top of her big, belting voice. Heffernan is surrounded by a fine double-cast cadre of energetic orphans who nail the show's "Hard Knock Life."
Other supporting roles are more than aptly filled by the likes of Jake Klinkhammer as Miss Hannigan's scheming brother Rooster, Maggie Portman as his floozy girlfriend Lily, Emily Rohm as the understanding secretary Grace Farrell and Don Richard as a cheery President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The ensemble wrings plenty of laughs from Thomas Meehan's sweet-and-sour script that is filled with plenty of period name-dropping to please the history buffs in the audience.
Also getting a nice audience response is the dog Mikey who hit all his cues as Sandy on opening night under the supervision of actor/dog handler Brian Michael Hoffman. Perhaps Mikey's appearance prompted some audience members to inquire about adopting their own shelter dog from Aurora-based Rover Rescue, which had a table in the lobby. That would be an extra special gift for any family on top of this superlative production of "Annie."