A New Tomorrow? 

Annie at Playhouse, Christmas Carol at Theatre Memphis.

Irene Crist and Sydney Bell in Annie

Irene Crist and Sydney Bell in Annie

It's hard to imagine what cartoonist Harold Gray, who created the comic strip Little Orphan Annie, might have thought about the Tony Award-winning 1977 musical inspired by his work. Annie, which is getting a stylish, upbeat revival at Playhouse on the Square, concludes with a crew of doe-eyed urchins, billionaire Oliver Warbucks, his cadre of servants, and a cigarette-holder-chomping Franklin Delano Roosevelt singing about how good life will be because the president's New Deal "will build every city up" and "cheer every kiddie up."

Gray, however, was a staunch conservative. He despised FDR, and he often used his strip to attack Roosevelt's policies. He made Daddy Warbucks into the embodiment of American capitalism, and when Roosevelt ran for and won a fourth term in the White House, Gray decided the age of self-made men was over and responded by killing off the cartoon industrialist by way of an exotic illness. After the president's death, Warbucks was resurrected, a feat made possible, because "the climate [in America] has changed."

When Annie opened on Broadway, America was once again experiencing a severe recession, and its cloying message of scrappy optimism struck a chord with audiences. By the time the John Huston-directed film was released in 1982, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, warning citizens about "welfare queens" and working to dismantle Roosevelt's New Deal.

Now hard times are here once again and the adorable red-headed scamp is back, but after too many tomorrows without much hope or change, the show's themes seem more than a little trite, and the musical's lighthearted depiction of a billionaire accessing the resources of government agencies in ways no ordinary citizen ever could doesn't seem nearly as cute as it once did.

Director Dave Landis and choreographer Courtney Oliver brought a lot of heart to this production while keeping much of the sappiness at bay. Scenic design by Tim McMath calls to mind the noir aspects of the original strip without looking too much like recreations of Gray's evolving visual style.

This production's greatest asset, however, is a uniformly professional cast that knows how to walk the fine line between character and cartoon. Well, except for the poor dog playing Sandy who pulled his leash taut and nearly choked himself to death in an anxious attempt to get offstage as fast as he could. The cast covered the reluctant pet's fight/flight without so much as a hiccup.

Kyle Blair makes Daddy Warbucks a gruff charmer with such an easy touch one wonders how he ever mustered enough ruthlessness to acquire his fortune.

Annie's villains stand out, especially Ben Laxton and Kelsey Hopkins, who turn "Easy Street" into a dance number that's both funny and slightly revolting.

What Sydney Bell's titular orphan may lack in the rough-and-tumble department she makes up for in sunniness and good old-fashioned spunk.

Through December 23rd

A confession: If you want to see me turn green and morph into the Grinch before your eyes, bring up the topic of A Christmas Carol. The word "surfeit" comes to mind as the plot for this morally charged ghost story has been so frequently ripped off by hack television writers looking for an easy holiday script and staged by theater companies that know it will bring in a crowd.

Last season, Theatre Memphis redesigned its annual production of the Dickens classic, and a dozen months later, I've finally worked up the courage to sit through the whole show. Well, the one-act daytime version, anyway. And truth be told, it wasn't half bad. Jason Spitzer's adaptation is faithful to the original text and Christopher McCollum's set is a wonder of efficiency. The staging may have been a little flat-footed and the acting a little rote, but much of this is offset by the show's simple but effective special effects: Ghosts fly in from the rafters or melt into the floor; Scrooge's bed moves on its own; a ghostly face and hand appear in a door and seem to bend the wood like it was made of Spandex.

A Christmas Carol is often a young person's first exposure to live performance, and these parlor tricks provide just enough mystery and magic to ensure that everybody leaves the theater having been surprised at least once. And when it comes to a known commodity like A Christmas Carol, surprises are rare and welcome.

Through December 23rd

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