L-R: Sami Staitman as Annie, Mikey as Sandy, Larry Cahn as Daddy Warbucks. Photo by Alexander Weisman.

SALT LAKE CITY — Most people are familiar with the 1982 movie version of Annie with Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan and Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks.  I was surprised to find that Tim Curry played Rooster and Bernadette Peters played Lily. Lesser known is the 1999 version with Kathy Bates, Alan Cumming, Kristen Chenoweth, Audra McDonald and Victor Garber. (Guess what’s on my Christmas list!) With such legendary actors to follow, you may be wondering how the cast and production team compared at the local production of Annie at Pioneer Theater Company. Annie is an optimistic, feel good, heart felt, rags-to-riches story that arrives on stage just in time for some holiday cheer!

The orchestra opens with familiar music that strikes nostalgia and strums the heart stings of childhood.  Immediately, we are introduced to a rough and tough group of little girls, longing for love but lashing out in fear at those around them.  The “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” number was the highlight of my evening.  It’s not unusual to find a child saying, “That’s not fair.”  But in this song, the overtones of anger, choreographed sharp movements and the dingy orphanage lends credence to the “Life’s not fair!” feeling.

“Oh My Goodness! Oh My Goodness!”  I felt some of the best acting and stage presence came from the troupe of young orphans, including Olivia Smith-Driggs as Tessie and Addie Wray as Molly.  I was captivated by Smith-Drigg’s acting and found myself watching her most often when the kids were on stage. She seemed to hit her choreography with just a little bit more intensity and gave facial expressions with a flare of drama. In theater, you must act for the last row and she did!   Even so, all of these girls were strong, seemed present in their roles and never appeared to miss a cue or a line. They were fantastic and the highlight of the show.

From Oliver Warbucks’ (Larry Cahn) first, gruff and unsure meeting with Annie to the moments following his realization that he’d lost her, Cahn commanded the stage with a subtle strength and deep rooted gentleness that conveyed a powerful man with a gentle heart.  In the movie version, Annie seems to transform Warbucks from a cranky selfish man to the Daddy Warbucks we all know and love. However, Chan’s soft glances from the beginning paints a picture of a man longing to be set free by this young spirit.  So rather than a transition, I felt I was simply witnessing a thawing. In the end, I was thrilled with the pairing of Grace (Emily Shoolin) with Warbucks.  Through their interactions and stage dance in this production, I was captured by their friendship and respect for each other. Of the adults, these two were the most enjoyable to watch.

While the remaining actors in the show were professional, knew their lines and were very talented, I felt something was missing.  When I watch a show, I want to be so drawn to the character, what they are saying and their stage presence that I find it hard to look away.  For me, I wanted Rooster (Dirk Lumbard) to be slimier, Lily (Gina Milo) to be more of a ditz, Miss Hannigan (Suzanne Grodner) to be more of a drunk and Annie (Sami Staitman) to be younger and more wide-eyed.  Staitman was very talented and I think she played the role incredibly well, it just didn’t feel quite right. With such a brilliant movie cast (in two movies) to follow, it didn’t get there for me.   However, for your average theatergoer, I think the actor’s level of commitment will impress and tell the story needed.  Despite the feeling that something was missing from Rooster, Lily and Miss Hannigan, “Easy Street” was still one of my favorite numbers of the evening!

One of the actors that I did find myself watching, despite a small part was the actor who played the police officer who brought Annie back to the orphanage in the first half. I believe it was Adam Lendermon. He was one of those actors who always seemed to be just a few more levels into his character than expected.  It impresses me when I get this from an ensemble member because I imagine the content to be much more limited, thus much more difficult to dig into.

If you go to Annie, you may find some of your favorite songs from the movie missing in addition to a few new numbers. Since the stage version came before the movie, it would appear that these changes were made in the movie version – changes which I agree with.  While this production team has no say in this, I was pleased that “NYC” and “Something was Missing” were removed in the movie as I lost interest during these numbers (despite some awesome staging in “NYC”).

The dingy, run down, depression era orphanage, designed by resident scenic designer George Maxwell, made my heart go out to the little ones on stage.  The whole team (awesome job on lighting by Phil Monat) captured the contrast of the two worlds beautifully.  I loved the use of the warm colors in Warbucks’s mansion opposed to the colder colors in the orphanage. At one point, Annie puts on a new coat and I cringed a little, thinking just how dirty the beautiful coat would become brushing up against Annie’s rags (one of the costumes designed by K.L. Alberts).  And I nearly had a heart attack when the ragged army of young ones came marching into Warbucks’s pristine house.

And of course, let’s not forget Sandy (Mikey), the lovable mutt that I wanted to take home. Luckily, Pioneer has entered into an amazing partnership with the Utah Humane Society and there is a way for people to take home a canine friend.  Each night, there is a stray dog captured and taken to the pound on stage.  Back in real life, the following day, those who attended the show can adopt that dog. Well, I suspect that anyone can adopt the pup, not just those who attended the show.  What an amazing thing to do for these dogs right before the holidays.

I consider Pioneer to be one of the best professional houses we have in Salt Lake.  I feel their quality is always top notch and while I may not love every production, I know it won’t be because of lack of talent, amazing sets and costumes or professionalism! Annie at Pioneer Theater Company is a wonderful holiday treat for the family.  It’s a show that will tug at your heartstrings, make you feel good and because it’s theater, it will enrich your life!

Annie plays at 7:30 PM, Mondays through Thursdays, 8 PM on Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 PM on Saturdays through December 23rd at the Pioneer Theater Company (300 S. 1400 E., Salt Lake City.) Tickets range from $36-$62. For more information, visit pioneertheatre.org.

Photo courtesy of IceWolf Photography (c) 2011