First of all, I love the musical Annie. Second of all, I loved this production. So, if you don’t like the musical Annie, I would stop reading here, because this will be a rave.

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Having this iconic picture being used as a curtain warmer is a strong signal that Martin Charnin, the director of this production, the original director and creator of Annie in 1977, has decided it is time to get back to Annie basics and infuse this touring production with the heart and soul that was missing from the last national tour of Annie. To update is fine, to demolish the heart from the story is not going to get you a seat at Charnin’s table during the holidays. So, with the master at hand, this production of Annie revels in joy and fun.

The journey of Annie (picture perfect Heidi Gray) is quite a tale. She thinks her parents have left her at an orphanage run by the whiskey infused Miss Hannigan (ferocious Lynn Andrews). However, on the other side of town, Republican Oliver Warbucks (played by Cleveland’s artistic bull mastiff of talent Gilgamesh Taggett) wants to have an orphan spend the holidays with him. Obviously, he must be running for office. The craziness ensues as some shady characters vie for the $50,000 finders fee. The results are fun as heck, and not without true heart-tugging emotion.

Heidi Gray as Annie is a true delight. This is a juggernaut role and she handles the demands like a pro. With an infusive personality and pipes for days, she brings Annie to life. Her range of emotion is quite impressive. When the dramatic moments arrive, she doesn’t sugar coat or fake anything. It is pure and honest.

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Gilgamesh Taggett is self-actualized in the role of Daddy Warbucks. His fierce confidence is quite evident as he navigates through the self-built walls that his character has built. Taggett is funny, charming, and possesses a voice capable of quiet empathy and free-wheeling spirit. Gifted comedic chops are on full display in this well-rounded portrayal.

On the right below, is the charming Chloe Tiso who plays Grace Ferrell. Luckily, Tiso has a great energy for Grace, that created more than one dimension, which is a welcome relief. She is beautifully poised and has a fantastic rapport with Warbucks.

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Lynn Andrews chews more scenery than the union is able to fix. She starts off a bit slow, but that is only to give her character an arc of supreme craziness. I could not get enough of her. Comedic timing for days, as she serves enough face to secure herself a cable channel. she is armed with a fantastic voice, rowdy chops, and a WWE approach to dancing, as her hip thrusts could protect America from any invasion. Pure fun.

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Garrett Deagon and Lucy Werner, as Rooster and Lily, provide Hannigan with some fun feral sidekicks. They seem to approach their characters a little less over the top, and more shifty. Its a different take, but I enjoy something new to chew on. They certainly turn up the burners when they join Hannigan is a rip-roaring version of  “Easy Street”. They dance their smudges off for sure.

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No orphanage would be complete without some fierce orphans. This production has a well-designed cast of ragamuffins that are diverse in race, size and age, which is fantastic. They are low brow and precious. Sage Bentley as Tessie, Bridget Carly Marsh as July, Annabelle Wachtel as Molly, Casey Watkins as Duffy, Molly Rose Meredith as Pepper and Emily Moreland as Kate. Miss Wachtel will be picking up her Nickelodeon award soon, I’m sure.

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Special shout outs to Jeffrey B. Duncan as F.D.R. Your delivery of the line “Harmony” was only topped by your scene-stealing tenor note at the end of the Tomorrow reprise. Todd Fenstermaker was a hoot as Drake, and especially when you let out of holler over Annie staying. Great bit. Ruby Day come on the set illuminated with beauty and charged with a voice that would surely melt a thousand hearts, and book her a gig if I was directing. My personal favorite is Bert Healy. of course, Healy is the first part I ever played in theatre. Brendan Malafronte was terrific. Malafronte had a great classic take on the character, and if it wasn’t for the fact that he is better looking than me and more fit, I would have mentioned him sooner. Don’t worry, I’m fine. Ha. Great Job!

The featured ensemble includes Chelsey Lynn Alfredo, Jonathan Cobrda, Madisen Johnson, Brianne Kennedy, Tyler Lenhart, Theresa Rowley, Kelsey Shaw, Connor Simpson and Daniel Forest Sullivan.

ANNIE has a book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin. All three authors received 1977 Tony Awards for their work. Choreography is by Liza Gennaro, who will incorporate selections from her father Peter Gennaro‘s 1977 Tony Award-winning choreography. However, with this production, I would like to have seen something a bit more energic with the servants.

The celebrated design team includes scenic design by Tony Award winner Beowulf Boritt (Act One, The Scottsboro Boys, Rock of Ages), costume design by Costume Designer’s Guild Award winner Suzy Benzinger (Blue Jasmine, Movin’ Out, Miss Saigon), lighting design by Tony Award winner Ken Billington (Chicago, Annie, White Christmas) and sound design by Tony Award nominee Peter Hylenksi (Rocky, Bullets Over Broadway, Motown). The lovable mutt “Sandy” is once again trained by Tony Award Honoree William Berloni (Annie, A Christmas Story, Legally Blonde). Musical supervision and additional orchestrations are by Keith Levenson (Annie, She Loves Me, Dreamgirls). Casting is by Joy Dewing CSA, Joy Dewing Casting (Soul Doctor, Wonderland, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat).

My hat is off to Mr. Charnin for bringing the show back home, the way it should be. But also, the additional embellishments to some of the musical numbers like”N.Y.C.”, “I’m Gonna Like It Here” is fantastic. The old pure heart, but punched up with a red bull dose of pep. Loved the new stuff.

and of course, I can’t forget Sandy and her understudy. Macy and Sunny.

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http://www.playhousesquare.org/events/detail/annie

Get your tickets and welcome Gilgamesh Taggett back home!

Kevin Kelly CoolCleveland.com