Skylight Music Theatre Stages A Heartwarming & Rousing “ANNIE”

Reviewed by: Matthew Perta

Some theatergoers may cringe at hearing that yet another theatrical group is staging yet another production of Annie, a musical that first opened on Broadway back in 1977, and may cringe yet again at being reminded of yet another adorable little actress in red curls belting out “Tomorrow.”  Set during the darkest days of the Great Depression of the early 1930s, Annie is the story of an 11-year-old orphan who manages to inspire President Franklin Delano Roosevelt into launching his New Deal.  The theme is worn out, some might say.  The story is too far fetched for today’s audiences.  Well, think again.

Annie remains optimistic despite the lousy hand life has dealt her.  She grabs an opportunity and runs with it.  She refuses to give up.  In reality, she’s the perfect role model for today’s generation of girls. We need Annie and her sunny outlook on life now more than ever, given the complicated times in which we live.  And this is precisely why the Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee is to be commended for bringing Annie back to life with a delightful, rousing production just as 2017 –a tumultuous year in politics, weather and violence – comes to an end.

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The Skylight Music Theatre pulls out all the stops with this production of Annie, attracting some the most impressive talents in theater today – both on stage and behind the scenes.  A cast of 35 performers sing, dance and act their hearts out.  Musical numbers including “Hooverville,” “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” “NYC” and the lively “Easy Street” are all great fun, with the crowd-pleasing “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” topping them all with the imaginative choreography of Molly Rhode, who also directs the show.

At the heart of the Skylight’s Annie is KyLee Hennes (alternating in the lead with Eloise Field) who is magnificent as the feisty orphan with a heart full of optimism.  Hennes tugs at the heart strings right from the first scene with her dreamy rendition of “Maybe” as she thinks about the parents she’s never met but firmly believes will one day reclaim her.  When singing “Tomorrow” to her new dog Sandy and to FDR at the White House, Hennes fills the theater with so much hope and good cheer you can actually taste it.  Hennes can also touch an audience in a straight dramatic scene, as she does when she tells Oliver Warbucks, the billionaire who invites her to his home at Christmas, with sheer confidence that she’s find the parents that abandoned her.  Hennes, only 13, already has an impressive resume that includes roles in The Magic Flute and The Sound of Music for Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Carrie Hitchcock, a Milwaukee native, is hilariously sleazy as Miss Hannigan, head of the dumpy orphanage that imprisons Annie and her fellow orphans, and Chicago’s own Matt Crowle, brings down the house as both actor and dancer in his superb portrayal of Hannigan’s conniving brother Rooster, who poses as Annie’s real-life Pop in the hopes of nabbing a huge financial prize being offered by Warbucks.  Diane Lane gives a winning performance as the properly efficient Grace Farrell, private secretary to Warbucks.  Lane’s operatic singing voice is another highlight of this splendid production; she has played more than 50 characters for a variety of opera companies.  And Andrew Varela scores with his excellent interpretation of the hard-as-nails Warbucks, who discovers a new side of life thanks to Annie.  Varela’s distinguished career on stage includes the Broadway and National tours of Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera and Sunday in the Park with George, among other shows.

Serving as a backdrop to the superb cast are the visually stunning sets designed by Peter Dean Beck.  The sets range from a dingy orphanage to the stately elegance of the New York City mansion of Warbucks.  Beck has designed scenery and lighting for some 300 productions around North America, and has been the principal designer for the Hawaii Opera Theatre for 32 seasons.

Spirited and heartwarming, Annie at The Skylight Music Theatre proves that Tomorrow is better and brighter than today, so don’t lose hope.  This is the best gift we could ask for this holiday season.

The Skylight Music Theatre has extended its run of Annie through Dec. 27.  The musical is being staged in the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center, located Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward, 158 N. Broadway.  For tickets call(414) 291-7800 and for directions to the Cabot Theatre in downtown Milwaukee visit www.skylightmusictheatre.org.