Review: "Annie" at The Muny

Review: "Annie" at The Muny

‘Annie’ continues the 100th season at The Muny in St Louis. The musical set in the time of the Great Depression is about an orphan named ‘Annie’ (Peyton Ella) who is selected by billionaire ‘Oliver Warbucks’ (Christopher Sieber) to stay with him in his mansion for Christmas. Both Ella and Sieber have amazing solos and fantastic chemistry as we follow the plot. 

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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!”


ANNIE
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 www.attpac.org 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.


Review : Adorable ANNIE Returns In (Another) New Tour

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?

© JOAN MARCUS

© JOAN MARCUS

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.

© JOAN MARCUS

© JOAN MARCUS

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.

© JOAN MARCUS

© JOAN MARCUS

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.

© JOAN MARCUS

© JOAN MARCUS

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.