She first pops up in 1885, in a weird little poem by James Whitcomb Riley about an orphan girl who labored for his family by day—sweeping, washing dishes, shooing chickens, you name it—then spent the evening telling the Riley kids cautionary tales about goblins who preyed upon naughty children.
By 1918, “Little Orphan Annie” was a silent film, then it became a children’s book, a radio show, a movie and a television series. But it was the comic strip by Harold Gray, created in 1924 and syndicated by the Tribune Media Services, that made the saucer-eyed sweetheart a household name. And it was the 1977 Broadway show, with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin and book by Thomas Meehan, and the 1982 movie it inspired, that Rachel Zampelli remembers, although she wasn’t born for years after it opened.
“It was definitely a big part of my childhood,” said Zampelli, who grew up in Bowie, Maryland. “My mom had the record— it was something I heard—and we watched the movie many times.
“My mom had, like, a T-shirt or a sweatshirt, I remember it said, ‘Annie: A New Musical.’”
Forty years later, Zampelli is playing Miss Agatha Hannigan in what is probably better described as “Annie: A Classic Musical,” following in the footsteps of movie stars Carol Burnett, Cathy Bates and Cameron Diaz, as well as Dorothy Loudon, who won the Tony originating the role in 1977. It’s a bittersweet moment for the actor, who returns to the stage following the loss of her baby son, Mercer Logan Jackson, in September.
“The girls have, from day one, been breathing life back into me,” Zampelli said, referring to the young actors playing opposite her as the mean mistress of the Municipal Girls’ Orphanage. “They were so wonderful—they’re little girls, but they surprised me: they heard me so easily and so maturely, and their reaction bound us together. All of my rehearsals with the girls really put me in a place that was otherwise hard to get to.”
Indeed, Zampelli chose to stay the course with her role in “Annie” for two main reasons. One was her experience at Olney Theatre Center, where she was last seen in “Sweeney Todd” and before that nailed the title role in “Evita,” and where she has most recently found a purpose and a supportive circle of compassionate friends and colleagues.
“The girls have so much heart, our cast cares so much, and (director) Jason King Jones has the biggest heart ever,” she explained. “Everywhere I turned, people were like, ‘What can I do for you?’ And they meant it.
“I ended up exactly where I needed to be right now—it’s turned me back into a person, if I’m being honest.”
The second reason was “Annie” itself, a perfect fit for the kid-and-animal-loving actor, who lives in West Virginia with her husband and noted that “Annie” is “a play about hope.”
“I couldn’t think of a better show,” she exclaimed. “Oh, we’re gonna do ‘Annie,’ with all these kids and a dog—and I am all about it! I don’t think I could’ve done a show that was (Harold) Pinter or Tennessee Williams.”
It’s not easy being mean, but Zampelli makes the most of it, imbuing Miss Hannigan with deliciously over-the-top villainy. “It’s fun, the things she says to these girls, it’s ridiculous and hilarious—we laugh about it,” she said. Compared to “Evita,” with its serious themes and difficult score, “This is much less stressful; this is enjoyable. It’s a completely different kind of musical, for me.”
Even so, there’s a message in “Annie” she hopes no one will miss. People may think of it as something superficial and frothy, she pointed out, but Zampelli sees this show as more than just a holiday musical. In the story of Annie, the Depression Era orphan-girl-made-good who escapes the hard-knock life inside Miss Hannigan’s orphanage, meets the president and (spoiler alert) finds family in the unlikely form of Daddy Warbucks.
“It’s fun and it’s light, a holiday show, that’s true,” said Zampelli. “However, it is about hope in the form of this little girl in the middle of this country that’s depressed, that’s in a depression. It’s kind of cool, this idea of a little girl being the hope for the future.
“‘Tomorrow,’” she added, “is a song about hope. For me, that’s everything right now.”
And for the audience, too—Zampelli thinks there’s no way to see the show without smiling and feeling “warm fuzzies,” especially with a cast that includes Tony Award-Winner Wilson Jermaine Heredia as the comically villainous Rooster, 2016 Helen Hayes Award-winner (and frequent Zampelli co-star) Kevin McAllister as Daddy Warbucks, and Olney favorite Patricia Hurley—last year’s eponymous “Mary Poppins” — as Grace Farrell. Unlike the nasty Miss Hannigan, the actor adores her “Annie” orphans, especially Noelle Robinson who, as Annie, delivers some of the show’s most emotionally-charged musical performances.
“Noelle is completely unaffected,” she said. “She came into it, as Jason asked us all to, with totally fresh eyes. The progress she’s made from day one until now has been amazing; she’s very honest and organic with her reactions and doesn’t try to be anything she’s not.
“I’ve seen it a thousand times, but just hearing ‘Tomorrow’ makes me want to cry and smile,” said Zampelli. “And ‘I Don’t Need Anything But You’—it’s so nostalgic, and I think the audience can absolutely feel it.”
“Annie” runs through Dec. 31 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Performances start at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and Tuesday, Dec. 26, with 2 p.m. matinees on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday as well as Fridays, Nov. 24 and Dec. 22, and a sign-interpreted show at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30 (contact Julie Via, patron services manager, firstname.lastname@example.org, to confirm). Tickets start at $42, with discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org. Learn more about this performance on CultureSpotMC here.