Review: 'ANNIE' National Tour at AT&T Performing Arts Center

Genevieve Croft 

Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Premiering on Broadway in 1977, Annie is based on Harold Gray’s comic strip, Little Orphan Annie, a little red headed orphan and her adventures with dog Sandy, and benefactor, Oliver Warbucks. Little Orphan Annie inspired a weekly radio serial in 1930, and a popular film version in 1982, starring Broadway legends Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, and Tim Curry. In 2014, a dismal, loosely based adaptation of Annie starring Jaime Foxx, and Cameron Diaz introduced new audiences to Annie, in a modern re-telling of the story. Annie has also been integrated into other areas of pop culture. In one episode of the witty sitcom, Frasier, Frasier Crane anxiously awaits his turn for a caricature portrait of himself. In his haste, he insists a young girl take her incomplete portrait and leave. She quips, “But I don’t have any eyes.” Frasier replies, “Neither did Little Orphan Annie, and she got her own Broadway show!” No matter what medium, audiences have been entertained by this optimistic orphan, and her quest to find her parents for over 90 years.

Annie is set in New York City in December 1933. The large ensemble cast includes a wealth of talent of all ages. The musical is a lengthy two and a half hours, however, the high energy and recognizable songs allow the audience to pay no attention to the time, and to quickly get drawn into Annie’s story. It was the quickest two and a half hours I have ever spent in a musical theatre production. Audiences are quickly swept into Annie’s quest to find her parents, and the symbolic locket she wears as her only connection to her missing parents. Set during Christmas, and on the cusp of F.D.R.’s New Deal, audiences are given an appropriate history lesson of The Great Depression, though the eyes of young optimist Annie.

Director Martin Charnin brought together an ensemble cast which worked well together, and collaborated with a crew who clearly took their jobs seriously and knit together scenery, lighting and sound that enhanced the story being told by these familiar characters. It was a great pleasure to see a production directed by Charnin, lyricist of the original musical team. What a privilege for audiences to see the original lyricist of the production, in the role of the director. If anyone had a director’s vision for this production of Annie, it would be Broadway legend, Martin Charnin. It is not very often that audiences are able to see the work of a lyricist and director in the same production. What a treat! 

Set Designer Beowulf Boritt successfully transformed the proscenium stage into multiple locations. In a story with so many locations, each one was designed and conveyed with precision for detail. I was impressed with Boritt’s attention to detail in each location and especially the usage of the color gray to convey the bleakness of life in the orphanage during the early part of The Great Depression. In contrast to the bleakness of the orphanage, each room displayed in Warbuck’s home was very colorful, grand, and gave the audience the air of luxury. The stage was transformed into several large rooms (living room, Warbucks’ business office, and entry foyer-complete with a grand marble staircase). This was achieved with very little set dressing/furniture, and the use of painted screens with painted windows, doors, and decorative pieces of art were able to transition from each location in the large mansion seamlessly, and quickly-never stopping the energy or action of the production. The design of Warbucks’ house was exactly what was needed for the action that would ensue there. The office was very detailed. I especially appreciated the stained glass window, and the painted autographed portraits of former presidents that adorned Warbuck’s office. The street scenes of New York were also very detailed. It was a nice effect to see the Brooklyn Bridge, and the buildings that form the New York City skyline in silhouette. This attention to detail was one of those things that would not have been missed had it not been there but added an element of legitimacy to the set.

Lighting was designed by Ken Billington. Billington did a fantastic job plotting lighting that was appropriate and never cast distracting shadows. Through the performance, his cuing to enhance each scene was spot on. I especially enjoyed how the lighting complimented the scenic design, giving the impression of different times of day (sunrise and dusk) over the Brooklyn Bridge, and through the windows of the Warbucks’ home. One element of surprise was the illusion of snow falling through the windows on the evening of Christmas Eve in the moonlight. It was a fantastic effect, and really brought the lighting and the scenic designs together, creating a lovely effect in the background.

Assisting the lighting and set, Sound Designer Peter Hylenski carried through with his own detailing, and I especially appreciated the use of appropriate live sound effects in the NBC radio studio, during the Hour of Smiles radio program with Bert Healy. I also really felt a part of the radio audience when we were asked to applaud at appropriate moments and when prompted by the applause sign. It was a nice touch that added depth to my experience of the production.

Suzy Benzinger designed costumes that were not only period appropriate but had a fine attention to detail. The orphan girls each had a unique, drab costume, while Miss Hannigan appropriately dressed better than her little girls. I enjoyed seeing the women of the cast in extraordinary 1930’s hats- a fashion trend that I wish would make a recurrence today. Everyone in the ensemble had extremely different costumes, and there was never a point in this production when I felt that costumes were similar to one another. Each ensemble player wore a unique costume (for each role) adding to their importance to the story. All this added authenticity to their roles. Costumes were visually appealing, while also giving an accurate depiction of their character’s personality, and life in 1933.

Issie Swickle was incredibly believable in the role of Annie. Through facial expression, and body language, Swickle convincingly portrayed the optimistic eleven year old seeking to find her parents, and to provide a little hope to those around her. Her role was very loveable, and her enthusiasm and honesty on stage was nearly constant, having appropriate interaction with her young ensemble members, and lovely on stage relationships with Miss Hannigan, Mr. Warbucks, and Grace Farrell. Swickle never faltered in her delivery, and all interactions with other cast members were believable and spot on.

Oliver Warbucks was played by Gilgamesh Taggett. Taggett was very convincing through facial expressions and body language. In one specific scene, Taggett and Swickle were engaged in a very tender moment, while waltzing in his office-demonstrating his true affection for Annie. In this production, Warbucks was very soft, and likeable. A difference that I very much enjoyed in comparison to the movie role, portrayed by Albert Finney, who was very stern, and somewhat less loveable. I thought that the duality between Warbuck’s businessman persona and his desire to become Annie’s father was a nice contrast, and provided depth to his character.

Lynn Andrews, in the role of Miss Hannigan was skillful in portraying the mean-spirited matron of the orphanage. Through facial expressions, and a larger than life personality, Andrews’s performance was appropriate to the role. Andrews provided humor to her musical numbers (“Little Girls” and “Easy Street”) with her movement, and apparent dedication to the character. “Little Girls” was by far my favorite adult number in this production of Annie. 

Another standout was Lilly Mae Stewart, in the role of youngest orphan, Molly. With her delivery and facial expression, Stewart was convincingly cute and provided an appropriate touch of humor through her presence on stage. Stewart did an excellent job in her portrayal of Molly. As Miss Stewart matures and expands her resume, she will certainly become a well-rounded actress.

This production of Annie is definitely worth seeing. The attention to detail evident in all aspects of this production makes for a satisfying experience. From the moment the overture begins, and the recognizable songs are previewed, you will be enthralled. Not only is it an excellent history lesson for audiences of all ages, but also, it is an excellent way to introduce Annie’s story to first time theatergoers. Whether you are the young, or the young-at-heart, Annie will tug at your heart, and leave you with an excellent theatrical experience. Hurry, you have a short time to see Annie at the Winspear Opera House. Take a break from the “Hard Knock Life,” and see these “Little Girls!”

AT&T Performing Arts Center, Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora Street, Dallas, Texas 75201
Plays through July 5.

June 24, 25, 26, 27, 30 at 8:00 pm/ June 27, 28 at 2:00 pm/ June 28 at 7:30 pm
July 1, 2, 3 at 8:00 pm / July 4 at 1:30 pm and 6:30 pm/ July 5 at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm

Ticket prices range from $30.00-$120.00, depending on day and seating. For information and to purchase tickets, go to call the box office at 214-880-0202 or go to the AT&T Performing Arts Center Information Center at 2353 Flora Street (Mon. 10 am-6 pm, Tues.-Sat. 10 am-9 pm, and Sun. 10 am-6:00 pm). 

**Please Note- Buyer’s are reminded that the AT&T’s Performing Arts Center Information Box Office is the only official retail ticket outlet for all performances at the Winspear Opera House. Ticket buyers who purchase tickets from a ticket broker or any third party should be aware that the Winspear Opera House is unable to reprint or replace lost or stolen tickets and is unable to contact patrons with information regarding time changes or other pertinent updates regarding the performance.

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