Michael L. Quintos
Alright, I admit it. The older I get, the more curmudgeonly I feel about shows featuring a gaggle of precocious kids singing to the top of their little lungs. But, alas, when I see a professionally-produced production of a musical like the seemingly immortal Broadway classic ANNIE—featuring adorable little tykes doing their darndest to entertain a, well, more forgiving crowd—I am gently reminded (whew) that I still may have a smidgen of that young kid still living inside me...that impressionable, dreamy-eyed little dude fascinated with musical theater and its wonderful, sometimes magical possibilities.
So, for the next two-plus hours, try to forget the show's technical gaffes, the (now) cheesy, dated humor, its narrative shortcomings, and the sometimes exaggerated acting—I mean, does that stuff matter much here? Did you see that cute dog prance across the stage? Did you see the priceless expression on that darling, pint-sized, curly-haired moppet while singing about a "Hard Knock Life?" And have you tried your best to get all those memorable classic showtunes like "Easy Street," "Maybe," "You're Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile," or "Tomorrow" out of your head once you left the theater? Pretty irresistible, right?
Few stage shows have the kind of Teflon resiliency that this 1977 Tony Award winner for Best Musical seems to thrive on, and it's not really that much of a surprise. A safe, inoffensive, cutesy crowd-pleaser for the young and the young-at-heart, it's no wonder this popular, beloved standby continues to be a staple among schools and regional theaters across the globe, simply for its family-friendly theatrics and its easily-digestible theme of good ol' optimism.
And perhaps these factors were also the motivation behind yet another Broadway revival that sprung up in 2012 for the show's 35th Anniversary. This fresh iteration—directed by the original 1977 production's Tony-winning book writer and lyricist Martin Charnin—would later serve as the launching pad for this brand new non-Equity national tour that is currently playing at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through May 24.
Eager to please and pretty much does so, this latest revival production is, by all accounts, a cute if standard-issue charmer, filled with hummable ear-worm music (via Charnin and composer Charles Strouse) and enjoyably hyperbolic characters based on Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie comic strip that audiences will delight in either cheering or jeering.
The more cynical modern times we live in now may grimace at such a square show set during America's Great Depression—way, way back at the start of the previous century—but, man, only those with the blackest of hearts can resist the show's infectiously optimistic, happiness-over-bleakness attitude that permeates throughout its run time. Sure, ANNIE may not be the best or most groundbreaking musical ever created, but it certainly has its heartwarming place in the genre. And seeing the smiles on the little kids watching the show's Opening Night performance this week in Costa Mesa is a testament that this show is a good, appropriate starter musical for every new generation of pint-sized theatergoers.
As always, the musical begins in December 1933, where we descend upon the dungy interior of the Municipal Girls Orphanage in New York City. This dilapidated dwelling is home to a precocious group of girls of varying ages led by charismatic 11-year-old Annie (Issie Swickle). Kind, sweet and super optimistic, Annie still holds on to the hope of being reunited with her long-lost parents, who've left behind a note and locket for her when she was dropped off at the orphanage.
Unfortunately, her harsh current living conditions are dictated by the child-hating, perpetually hungover Miss Hannigan (the terrific Lynn Andrews) who runs and oversees the orphanage like her own fiefdom. Thinking it would be better for her to break out of the orphanage to look for her parents instead of continuing to wait for them, Annie devises a successful escape. Once out and about in Manhattan, she ends up having a meet-cute with a stray dog she names Sandy and, more importantly, she also comes face-to-face with the reality of the day: a huge influx of unemployed and homeless New Yorkers hit hard by the Great Depression.
Alas, Annie's day out in the city is rather short-lived after being caught by police. But as luck—and musical theater gods—would have it, she is returned to the orphanage at the most opportune time. Grace Farrell (Ashley Edler), personal assistant to billionaire tycoon Oliver Warbucks (Gilgamesh Taggett) has arrived at the orphanage seeking to host-foster one of the girls for a two-week stay at the Warbucks mansion during the Christmas holiday. With Annie still conveniently in Miss Hannigan's office while this conversation takes place, Ms. Farrell (after some cute coaching) decides that she wants to take Annie. Miss Hannigan, naturally, objects to the idea, but is scared into agreeing after a bit of convincing from Ms. Farrell.
Thus begins Annie's magical new adventure. She's a hit with the staff at the mansion, of course, and, yes, even manages to convert the hard-charging, gruff Mr. Warbucks into a softie. He's taken with Annie so much that he decides that he wants to formally adopt Annie to be his daughter, only to be dissuaded by Annie's desire to find her real parents. Warbucks soon makes it his top priority to locate them, even offering to pay out a huge reward for any significant info that leads to their location.
Meanwhile, back at the orphanage, Miss Hannigan gets a surprise visit from her ne'er-do-well brother Rooster (Garrett Deagon) and his girlfriend Lily. Grifters by trade, the two of them, along with Miss Hannigan, soon hatch their latest scheme: why not procure the Warbucks reward money for themselves by having Rooster and Lily pose as Annie's long-lost parents? Well, they certainly would be able to pull it off considering Miss Hannigan possesses a wealth of personal info about Annie's roots no one else would know!
Cute and appropriately charming, ANNIE is, more than anything, fashioned to be a feel-good, giddy musical borne with the sensibilities of a simpler era—a throwback to a time before cynicism and distrust overtook unwavering optimism. Yet, despite its old-fashioned allure, its ideas of perseverance over seemingly insurmountable hardship can still resonate today, even if it's a little harder to convince folks of it thanks to the overwhelming volume of bickering pundits on 24-hour "news" and the constant chatter of social media that tells us we're all headed for ultimate doom.
Okay, so the cheese factor seems super amplified, but the show and its smile-inducing songs just can't help it. I mean, even the so-called villains in ANNIE are buffoonishly adorable in their own way. The kids in the orphanage, particularly Molly (Lilly Mae Stewart)? Good luck trying not to love every single one of them. And even the "friendship" between avidly Republican Warbucks and Democrat idealist Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Jeffery B. Duncan) seems totally inconceivable in the real world—or at least in today's political landscape. (On a side note, the only thing that I found curiously head-scratching, though, is this production's seemingly heightened—and totally undeserved—aversion to Pres. Roosevelt, who seems to have morphed into the butt of jokes in this iteration).
This new touring production itself is also a quite a feast for the eyes and ears. Both kids and adults will be dazzled by the stunning NYC backdrops—some of the prettiest I've seen depict the city in this era. The well-choreographed giant set pieces designed by Beowulf Boritt feel like characters themselves. It's actually pretty mesmerizing watching them move and twist and connect together to create the show's eye-popping environments. Suzy Benzinger's costumes are excellent approximations of those from the era. Musical Director Keith Levenson's orchestrations bring the score to peppy life. And Liza Gennaro's admirable choreography provides some entertaining numbers.
As for the show's ensemble, the cast may not be Equity card-holders, but they certainly entertained. Swickle (who alternates the role of Annie with Adia Dant at select performances) does a great job in the title role, and displays a convincing rapport with Taggett's Warbucks and Edler's Ms. Farrell.
But, honestly, the best thing about this new tour is the exceptional actress they found to play Miss Hannigan, played with deliciously wicked aplomb by Lynn Andrews. Funny, crazy, brassy, and blessed with a fabulous voice, she created a surprisingly fresh, wholly new Miss Hannigan for me that I absolutely loved and had me laughing in stiches. Admittedly, the show's energy even dies a bit whenever she's not on stage.
Overall, this brand new tour of ANNIE is certainly a worthy enterprise—at the very least as a good "first show" for the young ones or as trip down memory lane for those longing to see a professional staging. Though the show could use some jolts of energy here and there—and perhaps some repairs on their intermittent microphones—this still-optimistic ANNIE remains reliably endearing. Betchur bottom dollar!
Review also published on BroadwayWorld. Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from the National Tour of ANNIE by Joan Marcus, courtesy of SCFTA.
Performances of Troika Entertainment's New Touring production of ANNIE at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, May 24, 2015. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.