'Annie' at Walnut Theatre: No leapin' lizards here

DM1ANNIE21
(Left to right:) Paul Schoeffler, Tahlia Ellie, and Rebecca Robbins in “Annie,” through Jan. 7 at the Walnut Street Theatre.

File this review under “Bah, humbug.” The Walnut Street Theatre’s production of Annie, the first big musical of the holiday season, brought out the Scrooge in me.

Of course the girls are cute (but ear-piercingly shrill) and of course the songs are good, and of course the story of a poor little girl being adopted by the richest man in the world is a sentimental crowd-pleaser, but director Glenn Casale has wrapped it all up in a too-loud, too-slow, too-awkward package. There is weird blocking as actors move around the stage just for the sake of moving, and inexplicably peculiar lighting, leaving singers’ finales in the dark.

I had forgotten how sad a comedy Annie is. Act 1 is filled with orphans pathetically crying for Mommy in the night, mean Miss Hannigan (Mary Martello) tormenting said orphans, and homeless people who are cold and hungry. Once Annie (Tahlia Ellie) runs away, she befriends a stray dog, Sandy – and a more alarmingly woebegone animal you have never seen on stage (Sandy is always played by a rescue dog trained by William Berloni). The sun doesn’t really come out until Act 2, when, mercifully, we hear some adult singing, and there is some actual humor.

There is something lopsided about an Annie production in which Daddy Warbucks (Paul Schoeffler, with a big voice and big presence) turns out to be the star, while his would-be love interest, Grace (Rebecca Robbins) is reduced to a cipher. The great song “Easy Street,” performed by Miss Hannigan and her brother, the con- an Rooster (Christopher Sutton) and his leggy girlfriend Lily (Lyn Philistine) is fun, as is the ensemble moment in FDR’s office when his cabinet sings “Tomorrow” in harmony.  Buried in the ensemble are the excellent actors Ben Dibble and Fran Prisco.

Martello, a Philly favorite – and with very good cause – here creates a one-dimensional Miss Hannigan, mugging it up instead of creating character (isn’t her song “Little Girls” supposed to give us a glimpse of her own unhappiness and desperation?).

Based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie, the musical’s book was written by Thomas Meehan, the music by Charles Strouse, and the lyrics by Martin Charnin.  It has been a perennial favorite of regional theaters since its Broadway debut in 1977, but no lizards were leapin’ at the Walnut.

Annie. Through Jan. 7 at Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street. Tickets: $20-$97. Information: 215-574-3550, walnutstreettheatre.org.