"Annie" at Laurel Mill Playhouse

Samantha Yakaitis, as Annie, sings to Sandy, a canine actor whose actual name is Graham, in Laurel Mill Playhouse's current production of "Annie." (Photo by Larry SImmons, Laurel Mill Playhouse / December 11, 2012)

Even Ebenezer Scrooge would be hard pressed to resist a stage full of cuteness as adorable little girls and a fluffy dog scamper through the internationally acclaimed musical and seven-time Tony Award winning "Annie" at Laurel Mill Playhouse.

With book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Straus and lyrics by Martin Charnin, an anniversary production is currently showing at the Palace Theater on Broadway. But Laurel residents need go no further than Main Street to catch "Tomorrow" and "Hard Knock Life," popular tunes which have stuck with audiences all over the world for more than 35 years.

Directed here by veteran theater artist and Laurel resident Michael V. Hartsfield, Laurel Mill Playhouse's holiday production of "Annie" proves as fresh as it is familiar.

The title character starred in Harold Gray's "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip in the New York Daily News from 1924 to1968, and the tough little redhead has come a very long way since she frightened naughty children in an 1885 poem of the same name, written by James Whitcomb Riley.


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Drawing from excited local talent of all ages (so many turned out for auditions that Hartsfield double-cast roles, including Annie, and added an orphan ensemble) and assisted by debuting Musical Director Alice Laurissa and Executive Producer Maureen Rogers, of Laurel, the Playhouse's performance of the classic easily steps up to focus on the enduring power of optimism.

Hartsfield's clever set may briefly summon the political cartoon for some; it visually shouts "leapin' lizards" with caricatures of the show's Annie, Daddy Warbucks and Sandy painted on a white background. Designed and painted by Hartsfield, the set is really a work of art in itself.

As the show opens to orphans sleeping on the floor a few years into the Great Depression, the audience is transported fully to 1933 New York City. Eleven-year-old Annie — beautifully portrayed on Dec. 7 by Samantha Bloom Yakaitis — comforts little Molly (played by Shaylee Chubin) after a nightmare by reading her the note pinned to Annie when she was abandoned, leading into Yakaitis' solo performance of "Maybe."

Enter wonderfully wicked Jennifer Hollet as the alcoholic Miss Hannigan, the orphanage matron who hates "little girls" and most particularly, Annie; and the fairytale begins.

Every fairytale has its heroes and villains, and the actors who deliver "Annie's" do so superbly.

Many performances warrant special mention, but Patrick Pase as Oliver Warbucks strikes just the right note of reticence until Annie cracks his shell, and Emma Jensen as Grace Farrell is always charming. The uncontainable Hollet, David Hale as her brother, Rooster; and Melanie Pino-Elliott as his sidekick, Lily, make delectable evildoers.

Lauren Giglio waxes larger than life as radio announcer Bert Healy; and Morgan Wenerick, Erica Ridge, Carolyn McWithey and alternate Amy Vecheck as the Boylan sisters deliver lovely back-up vocals with her in "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile."

Yakaitis and the rest of the cast handle their musical numbers well across the board. Of course the wildly popular "Tomorrow" is a showstopper, while Hollet's "Little Girls" and Pase's "Something Was Missing" merely shine.

John Peery as Warbucks' butler, Drake, deftly finds his moments on stage. And though Playhouse Vice President Larry Simmons doesn't sing a lick, his boisterous characterization of President Roosevelt nearly steals Act 2.

Adult cast members in supporting roles too numerous to list also include Laurel residents Edward and Elizabeth Godshall, Mary and Rachel Kilgallon, McWithey, Melanie Pino-Elliott, Ruth Strommer, Alexis and Alison Thompson, Shaelyn Yermal and (never forget) Graham as Sandy the dog.

The Dec. 7 show featured endearing performances by Chubin, as Molly; Selah Thom, as Pepper; Anna Shenk-Evans, as Duffy; Mary Kilgallon, as July; Jenna Lessler as Tessie; Rachel Kilgallon, as Kate; and Keslsey Bell, Katie Godshall, Carlene Pometto, Emilee Schmidt, Samantha Roberts and Yermal in the orphan ensemble.

Expertly designed and staged, Hartsfield's "Annie" is a delightful production from its start to happy finish. Viewers may encounter an occasional bump — any show with a cast of this size and age range that brings an animal onstage will have some — but that's what live theater is about.

One upside for Laurel Mill Playhouse is the fun that Sandy the dog is undoubtedly orchestrating backstage.

"Annie" continues through Dec. 22, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. on Dec. 16, at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. General admission is $18. Students, 18 and under; and seniors, 65 and over, pay $15. To reserve the few remaining seats, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.