Starstruck’s ‘Annie’ is ready to stick out her chin and love ya tomorrow

San Francisco Examiner – January 7, 2011

Depending on your view, the title character in the musical “Annie,” can be either a charming bundle of idealistic joy or someone who needs to take her hard knock life elsewhere for a few hours. But in another way, Annie is almost the perfect character for the today’s societal and economic struggles. Really, if certain idealism is lost in the toughest of times, what hope is there for overcoming dire obstacles? If we lose our idealism, what is left?

And while the show about everyone’s favorite orphan might get knocked around for being a bit dated (after all, one of Annie’s dreams is that her biological parents might be out there collecting ashtrays), it does not take away from the fact that it’s one of the greats of the American musical theatre. Eleven Tony nominations in 1977, winning seven, including best musical. Catchy and melodic, memorable songs like “Tomorrow,” “Maybe,” and “Hard Knock Life.”A run on Broadway that included 2,377 performances. Film adaptations. Endless national tours. Even a revival that hits Broadway in 2012.

Starstruck Children’s Theatre in Fremont is not a company that scales back on production values. Big casts, big sets and big costumes are a staple of the company. And their newest offering featuring the charming little redhead, opening Saturday, Jan. 8th is no exception. Lori Stokes, the show’s director and the company’s artistic director is well aware of the challenges of putting on such a ubiquitous piece. Therefore, a firm commitment to making the piece as fresh as possible is paramount.

“It was actually one of our concerns when we picked the show is that it’s done a lot,” said Stokes. “The main thing we have tried to do is to really approach making the kids the best they can be, and that also includes the sets and costumes. We don’t rent sets, and we try to put in innovative choreography. I think that it helps the freshness of the show.”

Something that also must be overcome by the audience is the perception of what images people seem to associate with the show. Annie and the red dress. Annie and the red hair. Annie and the grumpy rich daddy. In order for the show to capture audiences with modern sensibilities, Stokes chose to shape the show by putting truth right at its core.

“Our emphasis has been on trying to make the show more realistic,” said Stokes. “The first thing audiences think of is that typical little girl with red hair that’s singing. We tried to make it more real and believable.”

A lot of that believability goes straight to the dramaturgy. “Hooverville” and the presidency of the Roosevelt’s may be common themes for any adult who’s ever read about the Great Depression, but definitely not for kids who would find more interest in learning about the favorite food of Justin Bieber (spaghetti).

“We really tried to make (the kids) understand this really happened, and we’re not making this stuff up,” said Stokes. “We wanted to give them as much info as they can in their acting choices on stage.”

One of the young thespians who had plenty of choices to make is the young lady who was chosen to be the title character. It is a rarity in theatre to have a show where such a young actor has to carry a mammoth piece. But it’s also a thrilling and exciting challenge for an adventurous kid.

Gracie Groeniger is the Knievelish one who earned that challenge. Now nine-years-old and heading for 10 just after the run is complete, Gracie is a two-year veteran who, like Annie, admits she is lovable, tough and spunky.

So how are they different?

“I’m not an orphan and I don’t have red hair,” said Gracie.

Whether a theatre patron has seen the show for the first time ever or the first time this month shouldn’t really matter. The world of 1933 was a world of uncertainty, unemployment and soup lines. Through this desperation and despair, Annie is a ray of light, a reminder that a better tomorrow is just around the corner.

But Gracie puts it a bit more pragmatically: “It’s a heart-filled play and it’s very exciting and happy and makes people feel good.”

Starstruck Children’s Theatre of Fremont presents “Annie”
Music by Charles Strouse
Lyrics by Martin Charnin
Book by Thomas Meehan
Directed by Lori Stokes
Musical direction by Nancy Godfrey
Choreographed by Jeanne Batacan-Harper
Fridays – Sundays, Jan. 8th – 23rd
Tickets range from $20 – $25
All performances take place at the Smith Center at Ohlone College
43600 Mission Boulevard, Fremont, CA 94539-5847
To contact the box office, call 510-659-1319, or to visit Starstruck’s official website, click here.