By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Nov 20, 2017 at 2:56 PM

There’s something about that perky little redhead that audiences can’t get enough of.

The tales of "Little Orphan Annie" have been told in comic strips, a radio show, numerous movies and, of course, the 1977 Broadway musical where Annie famously promises that "the sun will come out tomorrow." And now "Annie" is onstage as Skylight Music Theatre’s holiday offering – a rags-to-riches, orphan-to-family, bet-your-bottom-dollar heartwarming story of an 11-year-old girl made of pure moxie and optimism.

Deftly directed by Molly Rhode, it’s a production full of perfect musical moments, from orphans rising up in righteous indignation against their drunk and crooked caretaker Miss Hannigan, to Daddy Warbucks celebrating the wonders of New York City, to the homeless and down-on-their-luck singing an angry anthem about the failed policies of Herbert Hoover.

At the center of the production is its young star, a giant part that is double cast along with many of the orphans. On Saturday night, I had the distinct pleasure to see Eloise Field in the title role, and the bevy of very talented young ladies that make up the "Light" cast. Field fills Annie’s signature red dress and black patent leather shoes with heart and chutzpah.

In the opening number, "Maybe," she softly sings the youngest orphan, Molly, back to sleep with a wistful lullaby imagining the homes and parents that might be waiting for them. It’s a gentle, scale-climbing song that Field presents with tenderness and honesty. But when brass is called for, in songs such as "Tomorrow," "I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here" and the adorable duet with Daddy Warbucks, "I Don’t Need Anything But You," she shakes the rafters with her clear, strong mezzo soprano. With a firm handshake, unshakable determination and confidence enough to explain to President Roosevelt how to turn the country around, Field is every inch an unstoppable heroine.

Only Shiloh, the beagle-mix who plays Annie’s dog Sandy, could possibly upstage her. (Although third grader Gabrielle Henderson, who plays little Molly in the Light cast, also gave it her best shot!) As a group, Annie’s fellow orphans are also vocally strong, poised and energetic in creative dance numbers, expertly choreographed by Rhode.

According to the old show business axiom, it would be foolish for the adults in the cast to try to compete with all the cute on display by both children and animals, but the grown-ups hold their own. Carrie Hitchcock comically staggers through the halls of the orphanage as Miss Hannigan, lending her signature textured voice to the bitter lament "Little Girls." Joined by her brother Rooster (a suave and slick Matt Crowle) and his blonde bombshell girlfriend Lily St. Regis (a brazen Samantha Sostarich), the trio nearly stops the show with their ode to the perfect heist, "Easy Street."

And in a role that could be as flat as a dollar bill, Andrew Varela finds plenty of nuance in Daddy Warbucks, the blustery billionaire industrialist with a huge staff and the ears of world leaders. The audience can almost see Varela’s heart begin to melt as the publicity stunt to host an orphan for Christmas turns into something else entirely. Cradling the exhausted Annie in his arms after an adventure in New York City, he is gradually enchanted with the little girl who is as determined to succeed as he is. Varela’s singing voice is also exceptional, both powerful and warm.

Thoughtful character touches by Kelly Doherty and dynamite singing in smaller roles by Katie Berg, Doug Clemons, LaChrisa Grandberry and Diane Lane also elevated the production.

After watching the 1982 movie over and over and over, just like Rhode did according to her program notes, I was surprised at how spare the book is for the stage musical. More like panels of a comic strip, it’s up to the audience to stitch together the first few scenes of the story. The musical numbers, however, remain both charming and easily hum-able, as evidenced by the numerous audience members quietly singing their way through intermission.

While the song and dance of the production is terrific, aesthetically, it was disjointed. The scenic design by Peter Dean Beck is wonderfully whimsical in Warbucks’ mansion, patterned after an actual dollar bill, but the projections on a scrim for interstitial scenes were stylistically jarring. Other parts of the set simply didn’t work; Miss Hannigan’s office was physically too small to fit three actors in it, and the flat landmark buildings that passed upstage during "NYC" swayed unsteadily before getting caught in a curtain. Similarly, while Jason Orlenko’s costumes for the mansion’s staff, Hannigan, Rooster and Annie were spot on, the orphans wore a jumble of overalls, stripes and plaids that seemed mismatched with the time period.

Fortunately, nothing could derail the show’s delightful finale, set on Christmas morning. The enormous tree is up, the shiny presents are plentiful, the President has his New Deal, the bad guys get their comeuppance and Sandy the dog takes his curtain call sporting a bright red bow. Some things, like an adorable dog or a precocious orphan, just never get old.