Stage review: CLO's 'Annie' shines with optimism

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Generous amounts of sauciness and sass stirred with sugar and spice have made "Annie" a 35-year theatrical success story, and Pittsburgh CLO has perfected the recipe with seasoned pros and fresh-faced newcomers.

The comic-strip-turned-musical now at the Benedum Center didn't have to look far to find its plucky orphan Annie, 12-year-old Johanna Loughran, a sixth-grader from St. Bede Elementary in Point Breeze and the CLO Academy. The first time she hit a high note in opening number "Maybe," it was a cue for the audience to sit back and relax. She has the talent to sell it and belt it in songs including the standard "Tomorrow" and the spirit to stand toe to toe with veterans such as Sally Struthers, who as Miss Hannigan cajoles every comic line and gesture into a vaudeville routine. On the other end of the spectrum, stately Conrad John Schuck, who played Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks in the original Broadway run of the musical, can still bring the booming voice and bleeding heart of the Depression-era billionaire.


Where: Pittsburgh CLO at Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: Through Sunday. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $10-$65.75, half-price tickets for ages 3-14 available in section E; or 412-456-6666.

And yes, Sandy -- played by canine acting veteran Macy -- can inspire an audience chorus of awwwwwws, no matter who else shares the stage.

The CLO revival comes nine years after the company's previous "Annie." The musical made from the longtime "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip, about an optimistic girl whose "Hard Knock Life" at an odious orphanage is about to take a giant leap toward easy street, can charm first-timers and even the most jaded theatergoer. An appreciative opening-night audience was packed with kids, and aside from one outburst, they were a well-behaved lot during the show's 21/2 hours, including intermission.

Adults unfamiliar with the show or who haven't seen "Annie" for a while might be surprised at how much of it centers on the haves and have-nots of America at an economic lowpoint, and a wealthy Republican working with a Democratic president (Tim Hartman as FDR) to bring the country back to better days. It takes place in the era of Hoovervilles, shantytowns for the homeless that give title to one musical number for the 99 percenters of the 1930s.

Some familiar faces from recent productions stood out in supporting roles, including Kara Mikula (recently in CLO Cabaret's "Ruthless! The Musical") as Sophie and Mrs. Pugh, and limber Denis Lambert (CLO's just completed "A Chorus Line") as Miss Hannigan's scam-artist brother, Rooster.

The sprightly girls of Pittsburgh CLO Academy pulled off their time on stage without a hitch, in particular Kieran Bartels, Victoria Huston, Allison Joyce, Hannah Kwiecinski, Felicia Neibel and feisty Chelsea Calfo. With Annie, they play adversary to Ms. Struthers' gleefully nasty Miss Hannigan and try to rise above their "Hard Knock Life."

Van Kaplan, head of the CLO, noted in his introduction that the Tom Helm-led orchestra was back in the pit after working offstage for "A Chorus Line," and it does deserve a shout-out, along with director Charles Repole, for a tight production with a large cast including more than two dozen youngsters. The kids have stage presence beyond their years, led by their Annie, including a cute moment when Johanna, without missing a beat, moved Sandy so the dog was facing the audience.

The program declares that for Mr. Schuck, 72, this return to the Pittsburgh CLO is "for his final production of 'Annie,' " perhaps because the upcoming Broadway revival and possible tour could wipe out regional productions for the foreseeable future. He's a presence here and if, indeed, he has no tomorrows as Oliver Warbucks, the CLO show would be a proper send-off.


Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960.


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