review: annie

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Annie

Book by Thomas Meehan
Music by Charles Strouse
Lyrics and Direction by Martin Charnin
Featuring Gilgamesh Taggett, Issie Swikle, Lynn Andrews
King’s Theatre, Brooklyn, New York
December 15-20, 2015 

Kings Theatre [garth shilling 12-17-15]
Kings Theatre marquee December 17, 2015. Image by Garth Shilling.
Seated at the newly refurbished and splendorous 1929 Brooklyn Kings Theatre for a performance of the current national tour of the 1977 preteen queen of fan bait Annie (that is, queen until Wicked arguably took over that mantle in 2003 with its two fictional leads encouraging young girls to assume their own destinies), I think about architecture and modern art more than singing and dancing. Well, I think about dramatic framing and the essence of performance truth and good architectural bones. What we have in this Annie is an artfully framed production that hews to its structure but doesn’t illuminate any details. The sun comes out, we yearn for Easy Street, we learn we’re “never fully dressed without a smile” and yet the piece falls a bit flat.

Edward Hopper captured in paint the mystique of a movie house in the 1930s with an angle askew, a character feeling something deep and unknown at audience right, and a sense of mystery. The architecture stands constant; the drama of this usherette here is new, unrevealed, haunting.

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Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. An image that comes to mind often while seated in the marvelously refurbished 1929 Kings Theatre.

Similarly, one is enchanted by the refurbished bones of the Brooklyn Kings Theatre architecture with all their quasi-Persian Knights M-G-M distribution house detailing. But this Annie revival ultimately fails to truly capture the heart and soul of the work that has been so ably constructed, song by song, character by character, image by image. What we have in this touring production is a dependable, overacted, sometimes shrill, often clunky edition of a cartoon-on-stage, with some pretty set design moments, adorable orphans, a dog who appears and disappears for emotional punch, and slap-stick villains that don’t for a minute generate tension.

Annie is a show I first traveled to see in 1977 with its orphans, Hooverville denizens, ensemble singing and dancing, and scary-entrancing orphan headmistress Dorothy Loudon as Miss Hannigan. I learn in 2015 what I learned with the 2012 Broadway revival (with another director and another design team and yet another set of performers who together also ever-so-slightly missed the mark in many cases) and in other productions of this show — most any set of orphans will charm you in this piece if they can sing and dance at all, and any bums railing against the system political oppressors (that guy Hoover in “We’d Like to Thank You”) or have-nots against the haves (the crooked conspirators Hannigan, her brother and his girlfriend looking for “Easy Street”) will inspire applause or enthusiastic shouts of encouragement. Is it too much to expect a solid performer in the pivotal roles (Annie, Warbucks, Hannigan) to make a bit more than cartoon inked portrayals?

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Issie Swickle as Annie and Macy (or Sunny) as Sandy.

A kid with spunk is plucked from the orphanage gaggle (Annie played with singing talent but little feeling by Issie Swickle) and indulged by a rigid rich dude (Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks”, here played with perfunctory bombast by Gilgamesh Taggett) whose business-focused heart melts at the optimistic charm of his temporary charge. Hannigan (played for all sideshow Fat Lady gaffe and no layers by Lynn Andrews) and her cronies are shooed away by the tale’s end. As I reflected of the 2012 revival, this “simple plot constructed out of a comic strip has three essential perspectives to portray to provide the sense of substance to a tissue thin cartoon essence — the Richie Rich überwealth of Daddy Warbucks , the spunk and charm and hopeful allure of orphan Annie herself , and the so-mean-you-love-to-hate-her orphanage mistress Miss Hannigan.” The 1977 original gave us an Annie with spunk (that same actress, Andrea McArdle, currently on display as a middle-aged woman in a two-hander 2 Across scripted by Jerry Mayer), a Miss Hannigan with razzmatazz and a believable anger (ah, Loudon), and a serviceable Daddy Warbucks to fund the happy ending.  In 2012 we had Anthony Warlow as Warbucks, with pipes and charm to break your heart, Lilla Crawford as an Annie with pipes and little nuance, and a series of Miss Hannigans that never got the balance quite right, beginning with lovely Katie Finneran whose Hannigan no one fears, the kids make fun of, and who seemed to feel embarrassed for herself.

The 2015 revival has its own set of challenges and successes. Swickle as Annie belts out her “Tomorrow” perfectly ably, yet doesn’t build a sense of special spunk that Annies need. A moment that Warlow as Warbucks explored for new emotional depth in 2012 — the delightful ballad “Something Was Missing” sung by Warbucks to young Annie, who he has grown to love and who has shown him how to complete his life — is sung here perfunctorily, with Annie ignoring him entirely, reading the funny papers. A moment of an connection between adoptive father and child is totally lost, played as a musing of Warbucks to himself, alone. And the problems with this Hannigan are summed up as: all camp all the time.

The balance among these major roles is key for this cupcake of a show with mythic underpinnings. Missing parents, hero adventures, righting wrongs, innocence and earnestness confronting power — it’s all here and all easily wasted in a gossamer presentation.

The design team has done marvels with more limited touring company resources than Broadway house designs. Set designer Beowolf Boritt provides a marvelous orphanage, delectable depth of field with simplicity and not moving pieces (as in the original) for the Hooverville and other outside scenes, and a merely serviceable Warbucks mansion. (Conveying opulence simply and elegantly can be thwarted by too much brown paint as it was in this case.) Costumes by Suzy Benzinger work remarkably well throughout, from orphan rags to fancy rich duds and the essential Annie-in-curly-wig-and-red-dress get up that approximates the cartoon figure upon whom this musical is based. Broadway and regional stalwart Ken  Billington lights with delicacy where required, and sound by Peter Hylenski is balanced and true.

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Sandy and Little Orphan Annie in the daily comic strip by Harold Gray.

In the end, the experience of this Annie may be more about the theater building itself and the swarms of little girls that were up too late at my evening performance, squealing along with the funny parts and eating up Miss Hannigan’s shenanigans. Congratulations to Brooklyn for having in its midst, at least for the time being, a grand old theater that apparently can handle huge crowds and their accompanying falderol with grace.

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Kings Theatre, Brooklyn. 2015.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 18, 2015)

Book | Thomas Meehan
Music | Charles Strouse
Lyrics and Direction | Martin Charnin
Set Design | Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design | Suzy Benzinger
Lighting Design | Ken Billington
Sound Design | Peter Hylenski
Hair/Wigs/Makeup | Luc Verchueren
Animals | William Berloni

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