“Little Orphan Annie” began in 1924 as a comic strip and, a decade later, emerged as a radio serial. The comic strip and particularly the radio series presented young Annie having exotic adventures—trekking to a hidden jungle temple or visiting an island lagoon threatened by pirates. Accompanied by her faithful dog Sandy, her trademark exclamation was “leapin’ lizards!” In 1976, her story was transformed into an award-winning musical, “Annie,” which remains popular today in both stage and movie versions. The current production by Falls Church High School’s Spotlight Theater Company will please those with fond memories of both the Broadway musical and the “Annie” films, while also cleverly acknowledging Annie’s comic-strip origins.
The story, set in the 1930s, opens with eleven-year-old Annie in an orphanage run by the cruel Miss Hannigan. Annie escapes to look for her missing parents, meeting the dog Sandy (arf!) along the way. She also meets the fabulously wealthy Oliver Warbucks and other friends who introduce her to a kinder world than the one she left behind…though she must still evade unscrupulous people wishing to take advantage of her, such as the villainous Rooster and his girlfriend Lily St. Regis.
Ellie Whitfield plays Annie, capturing both the look and the mannerisms of her character marvelously. Her rendition of “Tomorrow” is both touching and memorable. She is later accompanied by a talented ensemble (consisting of “orphans” Addie Whitfield, Delaney Quinn, Viv Anaribas Flores, Sydney Glenn, Leslie Fon, Ellie Child, Nadia Shutov, and Olivia Arnella) for an engaging and boisterous “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” Colt Armstrong performs the part of Oliver Warbucks in full voice; his singing part in “N.Y.C.” is a standout.
Quinn Lopez is a perfect Miss Hannigan, channeling a 1930’s-style New York City accent and suavely singing the cynical “Little Girls” with a Kurt Weil-style musical backing. Lam Vu as Rooster and Dara Kearney as Lily add to the spirit of the proceedings as they seek to glide through life smoothly (and unethically) on “Easy Street.” Kate Schlageter-Prettyman is also excellent as Grace Farrell, Warbuck’s assistant, dueting with Annie in “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here.” Audiences will also enjoy the performance of Shetland sheepdog Whimsy Cheddarbean, a well-trained therapy dog portraying Annie’s dog Sandy!
The bright musical score is provided by a student orchestra conducted by Dr. CJ Redden-Liotta, and the fine choreography is by Stacey Claytor of C4Performing Arts Dance Studio. The performance includes clever nods to the comic-strip origins of the musical with screen projections on the sides of the stage resembling Sunday comic-style panels; sometimes characters emerge from these “comic pages”! Most were created by McKenna Cobb, the production’s student assistant director. One such panel features torn wallpaper and the barren interior of an orphanage with children’s drawings framed like paintings. New York City skyscraper silhouettes are also seen in colorful, comic-strip style frames.
Other nice touches include Art Deco-styled movie theatre logos and wonderful period costumes designed by the team of Isabelle Paparella, Camilla Isabella Garcia, Sophie Veas, and Sydney Grimard. A cathedral-style radio plays a 1930’s Jello dessert jingle and a radio announcer (the pre-recorded voice of Nathaniel Clock) introduces the vintage radio soap opera “Ma Perkins,” imbuing the production with retro authenticity to return us to Americana of the Depression Era.
We had an opportunity to speak with director Elizabeth De Marco, who told us that she “chose this piece because it would highlight some of the natural talent we have in our company. We have around 90 members of the cast and crew participating.” An additional reason to do “Annie,” she says, is: “I think we could all benefit from a better ‘Tomorrow’ as well!”
“Annie” runs at Falls Church High School on November 16, 17, and 18 at 7 p.m. as well as November 19 at 3:00 p.m. A portion of show proceeds will be donated to charities serving homeless teens. Tickets can be purchased at fchsdrama.org/events/upcoming-events.