OREM — The musical “Annie,” originally based on cartoonist Harold Gray's popular 20th-century comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” features a spunky young heroine who overcomes seemingly insurmountable problems without ever losing a stubborn belief that everything will be better tomorrow — and through Aug. 11, audiences at Hale Center Theater Orem can share her brighter world as well.
“Annie” has been around for a little over 40 years and has since been adapted into three different films, most recently in 2014 starring Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz. However, knowing the film doesn't mean you'll know the musical, which has a whole set of likely unfamiliar songs.
The comic strip that inspired the musical was often used to portray Gray's political views, and “Annie” is not short of jokes about Democrats. Set shortly after the stock market crash of 1929, which led to the Great Depression, there is an entire musical number where Annie meets homeless people living in New York's Hooverville, as well as a number later when Annie injects then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet with such enthusiasm that Roosevelt comes up with the New Deal.
And of course, the show features those familiar favorites “Tomorrow,” “Hard Knock Life” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.”
HCTO productions never cease to astound with the creative way they use their theater-in-the-round space, and “Annie” is no exception. Incredible detail went into every setting — like bricks around the whole theater — which were made possible in part by the clever use of screen projectors. What really shined in this production, however, was Ashley Gardner Carlson’s choreography. The dancers brought the stage to life, bringing feeling to the songs and, sometimes, astounding the audience.
Eleven-year-old Afton Grace Higbee leads the Monday/Wednesday/Friday cast. While her young voice wasn’t particularly memorable, she brought a sweetness to the role that made audiences fall in love every time she smiled or did something kind for a stranger. She was especially impressive in the way she kept her cool when Sandy, played by a therapy dog named Tag, was clearly more interested in the treats Higbee hid in her hand than he was in playing his role.
DeLayne Bluth Dayton gave Annie a villain to be proud of with her greedy and vicious Miss Hannigan. Dayton's comedic chops were on full display during raucous numbers like "Little Girls" and "Easy Street," showing off her vocal range and abilities as she drunkenly staggered around the stage.
The two other main characters — billionaire Oliver Warbucks, played by Rex Kocherhans, and his secretary Grace Farrell, played by Brandalee Bluth Streeter (who is a sister to Dayton — which makes their onstage interactions even funnier), were also cast perfectly. Kocherhans voice and demeanor beautifully portrayed Warbucks's change of heart, and the chemistry between Kocherhans and Higbee is believable enough that their tender moments brought tears to the more soft-hearted audience members. Streeter has such a genuinely kind and pleasant manner that she easily fit into the role of Annie’s champion, and one couldn’t help but root for her every time she came up against any type of villain (like Miss Hannigan).
Supporting characters such as the butler Drake (Shawn Lynn) and Miss Hannigan's brother Rooster (Wade Robert Johnson) provided flawless comedic relief — especially when Johnson’s Rooster was onstage with Dayton’s Miss Hannigan. However, it was Annie's fellow orphans, played by Camdyn Marker, Olivia Dayton, Anna Kocherhans, Suzi Sundstrom, Heidi Swan Robbins and Lydia Kenny, that brought the most enthusiasm to the stage — these six girls were clearly having fun. The diminutive Lydia, who played Annie's best friend Molly, stole the show with her a big, adorably sassy stage presence.
The show opened with a bit of a tear-jerker as one orphan cries out for her mother and Annie sings about the parents she hopes to know one day. However, things pick up when the girls perform “Hard Knock Life,” kicking the show into high gear for the rest of the production.
Although there are moments in the show that are a little cliché, or even trite (like Annie’s visit to the Oval Office, which somehow leads FDR and his cabinet to come up with the New Deal shortly after), the production quality is high and the acting sincere. HCTO’s “Annie” will make you laugh and possibly make you cry, but it will definitely make you cheer when everything turns out alright in the end.
Content advisory: "Annie" contains a handful of mild swearing, all spoken by Oliver Warbucks. There are also two brief suggestions of violence involving a knife, but these parts are over and resolved quickly, with no actual harm.