Imagine 50 orphans asleep on the Durango Arts Center stage. Amid pillows and blankets, the youngsters dream of better days. Then they awaken to the reality of the Municipal Girls Orphanage under the cruel dictatorship of Miss Hannigan.
So begins the musical version of Little Orphan Annie. “Annie Jr” opened last night and will run weekends through Dec. 16 with two matinees on Saturday and Dec. 16.
Directed and choreographed by Emily Simpson Grandt and assisted by Melissa Kirschstein, the 67-member cast comes entirely from the DAC’s performing arts program for kids known as Applause. The company started preparation in mid-September, so now it’s showtime.
“Once the lead orphans move,” Simpson Grandt said to her cast at rehearsal last Saturday, “Tuesday Class GO, Thursday Class GO, then everybody freeze.”
Simpson Grandt refers to her performers by their Applause groupings, including Spot On and Somethin’ Doin’. She also knows every youngster by name. The scene suggests the herding cats cliché, but Simpson Grandt clearly has control. She’s a kinder, more creative version of Miss Hannigan.
The comic-strip heroine first appeared on Aug. 5, 1924, in the Chicago Tribune. Created by cartoonist Harold Gray, the story of a courageous orphan struggling against the tide of the Great Depression endured until Gray’s death in 1968. “Annie” was reprinted then taken up by subsequent cartoonists until The Tribune Syndicate finally discontinued its daily version in June 2010.
The 1977 Broadway musical featuring Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan imprinted the story permanently as part of America’s self-image as resilient. Columbia Pictures came out with the first film version of the musical in 1982. Subsequently, the abbreviated version known as “Annie Jr” launched in 1998 and has appeared in public and private schools all over the country. Now, it’s the DAC’s holiday show.
Annie’s story is a quintessential rags-to-riches American dream. An orphan girl with grit lives a hard-luck life until she meets a billionaire who rescues her. Along the way, she encounters villains like Miss Hannigan, the hapless residents of a Hooverville, rogues who pose as her long-lost parents, and others before Oliver Warbucks saves the day.
It’s a treat to see youthful Durango portray Depression-era orphans and mean-spirited villains, not to mention Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who appears as a kind of deus ex machina at the end. Yes, these are our children, and the remarkable DAC program is worthy of attention and applause.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.