It’s been a hard-knock life for Little Orphan Annie. She began life as an 1885 typesetting error in an Indiana poem that made Allie into Annie, and the poem into “Little Orphant Annie.” Annie was an orphan who would visit and do chores while telling scary stories in rhyme to the resident children. She inspired the Raggedy Ann doll and storybooks. Films. Radio serials. The Chicago Tribune made a comic strip out of her, using her skills as a self-sufficient orphan as a political mouthpiece against everything that FDR and the New Deal stood for. During the Watergate and Vietnam era, Annie was reinvented as a Depression-era nostalgia figure who sang her way to the White House to inspire and sing duets with FDR. The 1970s musical incarnation of “Annie” became the signature incarnation, so much so that the comic strip was renamed “Annie” in its last years before ceasing publication in 2010.
The reaction to the original child lead for the musical was that she was considered too timid in previews and was replaced before the Broadway opening by a mini-Broadway belter, which became the template early on, right through the first of four film versions. The orphans, too, were mini-adults who shouted more than sang. The adults were cartoon characters, not surprising given Annie’s long incarnation as a comic strip. Somewhere along the line of infinite revivals, the aesthetics became more child-centered and sensitive. Annie’s swagger became vulnerability. The show became a female “Oliver!” where the emphasis was on Annie seeking to be loved and accepted. That standard is well in place in the new touring production of “Annie” playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.
This is an Annie (Ellie Rose Pulsifer) who is no cartoon. Her “Maybe” is a dream and she has yearned for her lost parents so long that there is melancholy in expressing it. She knows it is not to be, but serenades other orphans with the dream because maybe they can find solace in imagining hope for themselves.
When Annie meets up with Sandy the dog (Addison or Georgie in this production), it is the signature image of the show that Annie sings “Tomorrow” to the dog. Well, usually alongside of the dog. Not this time: Annie actually serenades Sandy and the dog longingly looks at her the entire time and, at least on opening night, it was a showstopping and poignant moment.
When Annie thinks she is going to lose the love she has found with Oliver Warbucks (Christopher Swan), the tears are real, and so are ours. Miss Hannigan (Stefanie Londino) is more pathetic than villainous.
So often “Annie” revivals center around a single star taking an adult role, but this is a true ensemble cast where the narrative and the music take precedence. Even the orphan ensemble members delineate each character and sing and dance with aplomb. Special mention must be made of the musical direction of Elaine Davidson who made the score soar with the syncopation and momentum of the 1930s.
“Annie” at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph, broadwayinchicago.org. Through March 19.