The Gingerbread Players of Saint Luke’s Church in Forest Hills should get a prize as the most child-friendly community theater group in Queens.
With their current production of the perennial favorite “Annie,” they continue their tradition of reserving an entire front row of preschool size chairs for the toddlers in the audience. At intermission, they sell freshly baked namesake cookies. Also the program comes equipped with an informative glossary of references made in the show that enriches the theater-going experience of the younger set.
And, of course, the stage is completely filled with young people, in this case nearly two dozen “Little Girls,” to name one of the show’s many humorous songs, not to mention a handful of boys playing an assortment of roles.
Lest one get the impression that this is an all-children’s production, rest assured that there are plenty of older folks along for this fun ride.
For those still somehow uninitiated, the show, which introduced the anthem-like “Tomorrow” to the world, has music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin and a book by Thomas Meehan that is based on the comic strip, “Little Orphan Annie,” and focuses on the title character and her efforts to find her parents. Along the way she befriends a loyal companion, a dog she names Sandy, and finally finds refuge, and, one can rest assured, happiness in the home of the filthy rich Oliver Warbucks.
Think of this as the sister show to that other classic musical about orphans, “Oliver!”
Purists will balk, perhaps, that in this go-round, Daddy Warbucks is not bald, and, even more shockingly, Annie does not have a mop of bright red hair. But it’s not likely that anyone sitting in that front row would mind in the least.
Nor are they going to care that in this staging the show’s villainess, Miss Hannigan, is Asian and much younger than typically portrayed, especially since her interpreter, Ngan Ping Chiang, is such a resourceful performer, a cherubic belter with a keen sense of comic timing. And despite the deep dimples, she manages to come across as appropriately mean.
Caroline Rosenblum, though not as powerful vocally as some of her predecessors, sings pleasantly enough as Annie, and she provides a plaintiveness to the role that is just right. She displays a maturity beyond her years and is at ease on stage.
David Friedman makes for an understated Warbucks and brings poignancy to his paean to Annie, “Something Was Missing.”
Under the assured direction of Louise Guinther, the show delights in some unexpected ways.
The very human Miles Palminteri is a crowd-pleaser as Annie’s four-legged friend. Gingerbread fixture Andrew Dinan is spot-on as President Franklin Roosevelt, and even manages to sing completely in character. The reprise of “Tomorrow,” in which he is joined by members of the Cabinet, is a highlight.
Also memorable is “Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” sung by Brian Percival as radio personality Bert Healy and a delightful trio, Rebecca Santana, Shannon O’Rourke and Jillian Sutera. The song’s reprise, sung in humorous imitation by the orphans, was charming.
One of the strongest vocal contributions comes from David Duryea, who appears as Drake, the butler, and in the ensemble.
Costume designer Joanna Guinther has outdone herself, creating an amazing array of Depression-Era outfits. The simple sets designed by Rosemary Favia were apt. Musical director Velma Adams kept everybody in tempo.
It would be difficult to say who had a better time at Saturday’s opening matinee performance, the cast or the audience in the packed house. They all had ear-to-ear grins from beginning to end.
When:April 27 at 7:30 p.m.
April 28-29 at 2:30 p.m.
Where: Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, 85 Greenway South, Forest Hills
Tickets: $12 ($10 for groups of six or more)