An old show business adage has it that you don't work with kids or dogs. "Annie," of course, throws that maxim to the boards and gleefully tramples it.
But it came to mind early in the Friday night opening of the Teen Musical Theater of Oregon's zippy new production of Thomas Meehan, Charlie Strouse and Martin Charnin's perennially popular 1977 musical about the plucky, Depression-era orphan.
In an early scene, Annie (played by the sparkling Madeline Day), having escaped the loathsome Miss Hannigan's Dickensian orphanage via the old laundry cart ruse, meets up with a stray dog she calls Sandy (played by the furry Whiskey), in a meeting obviously arranged by Fate.
Annie could well crib a line from Rick Blaine ("Sandy, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship"). Instead, she bursts into song with a relentlessly cheerful number ("Tomorrow") that encapsulates her gritty optimism. In a nod to the musical's sub-plot, it also prefigures President Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to revitalize the nation's spirits with the grab bag of programs he would dub the New Deal — after being inspired by New York City's smartest little orphan.
Sandy's entrance was greeted with the predictable chorus of "ohhhh." And while he was stellar in the part, never muffing a line, it was Madeline who was every inch the star, eyes agleam (in contrast to the comic strip Annie's blank ovals) as she sang and hoofed her way confidently through this upbeat old warhorse.
Adding an intriguing off-stage dynamic, Daddy Warbucks, the well-connected billionaire who has his heart melted by Annie and adopts her, is played by Brian Day, who in real life is Madeline's father.
One of the most challenging undertakings in the theater is to mount a big musical. Craterian Performances and director (and choreographer) Jaese Lecuyer have done it here with kids, about 50 of them, no less, plus Whiskey as Sandy.
Under Tamara Marston's musical direction, the kids sing up a storm. Many of the players are miked up for those in the back rows and to avoid being submerged by the recorded music track being pumped out of the Craterian's sound system.
Dress the kids in vintage costumes, put the whole thing on the Craterian's big-time stage, bathe the lovely flats flying in and out in lighting designer Brad Nelson's magic, and you have a slam-bam spectacular.
The make-no-apologies-about-being-sentimental show is saved from descending into sheer, misty-eyed treacle by the presence of villains Miss Hannigan (Tori Anderson), Rooster (Isaac Cosand) and Lilly St. Regis (Alyssa Monning).
Anderson's Hannigan is a kid-hating (she sings about it in the hilariously misanthropic "Little Girls") lush who yearns for an easy buck. Fresh from a stretch in the pen, Rooster, Hannigan's no-goodnik brother, schemes with gal pal Lilly to claim Annie as their long-lost daughter, collect on the $50,000 (in Depression-era dollars) reward Daddy Warbucks has offered, then make Annie "disappear." The baddies tear up the stage in one of the show's most outrageously entertaining numbers, the big rave-up "Easy Street."
In an age in which we tend to view with alarm middle-aged men who would befriend vulnerable children, the Warbucks-Annie relationship carries the potential for weirding out audiences a bit, a potential one feels in some productions. Not this one, whether it's the direction or the real-life, dad-and-daughter relationship, this one is as wholesome as apple pie.
It has to be a terrific experience for kids to be a part of a production like this. Not bad for audiences, either.
"Annie" will play at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. today at the Craterian, and a newly added 12:30 p.m. performance Sunday. Tickets are $20 general, $10 for students. Call 541-779-3000 or visit craterian.org.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at email@example.com.