Dallas — It’s easy to see why a musical based on a 1930s comic strip about a poor orphan girl and her stray dog that get adopted by a billionaire remains popular with little girls everywhere. Annie, like Cinderella, just never gets old. The fantasy of a Prince Charming or a Daddy Warbucks suddenly appearing, offering love and saving the heroine from a mean cruel stepmother or a mean orphanage matron is far more delicious than a double-nut, tri-flavored banana split with chocolate. Kids know the rags-to-riches tales by heart, film and Target costumes, and regularly turn out to see it confirmed in every music hall across America. You just can’t spoil the show for fairy tale fans—unless you mess up the happy ending. Nobody does that, of course.
Ask any kid in the audience when you go see the cheerful and funny non-Equity touring production of Annie, directed by Martin Charnin at AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House in the Broadway Series. They completely understand why Annie (sturdy, clear-voiced Issie Swickle) prefers living it up with a dozen singing servants in a Fifth Avenue mansion to a pig farm in Iowa, when it looks like her real parents have come to answer her prayers and claim her. Tough one, but it all works out, as all know it will, when gruff but goodhearted Oliver Warbucks (gruff but hearty baritone Gilgamesh Taggett) calls in some favors from F.D.R. (Jeffrey B. Duncan, wheeling and New Dealing) and gets the FBI on the case to check out the legitimacy of the would-be parents’ claim on adorable Annie.
The 1977 Tony Award-winning musical by composer Charles Strouse, with book by Thomas Meehan and lyrics by Martin Charnin, is also popular with a broader audience than kids because the upbeat score has some charming songs that are easy to remember and fun to sing, including “Tomorrow” and “It’s a Hard-Knock Life,” both delivered and reprised with energy and bubbling good will by Annie and the cutie-pie chorus of orphaned girls. In fact, Lilly Mae Stewart, a tiny waif of an actress with big eyes and a voice to match, steals the show as Molly in “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile."
Swickle’s Annie has a big voice, but rushes songs, and nearly gets ahead of the orchestra in her solo numbers. She’s best in the few scenes with her stray dog Sandy (played by Macy or Sunny), a sweet mutt that got applause just by staring in dismay at the orchestra pit and the audience. Swickle’s a little wooden as an actress, neither a tough-girl tomboy nor an eager ingénue. Still, she stays on cue, gets the job done and looks comic book cute when she gets “all gussied up” for a party. Watching all the young girls perform reminds me that a truly stunning child actor is as rare as an adult one, and not as practiced.
The bad guys, as usual in such stories, have the most fun grousing and plotting. Lynn Andrews is a hilarious hip-rolling, bosom-heaving Miss Hannigan, the scowling matron who boozes it up to deal with a house filled with “Little Girls,” a funny song bemoaning the miseries of dealing with her ornery orphans.
Garrett Deagon is a slick and sleazy Rooster Hannigan, the matron’s scumbag brother who show up with his pert female equivalent (leggy Lucy Werner). Their swaggering “Easy Street” makes greed and corruption sound like more fun than a robber baron’s beatitudes.
The show looks wonderful, filling the stage with Beowulf Boritt’s elegant set design crafted from handsome historic photographs of New York City in the 1930s, and plush interiors with a grand winding staircase—a must for all female-driven fairy tales. Costume designer Suzy Benzinger’s deep green and gold outfits for the adult chorus of doormen, maids and assorted secretaries evokes the period with sweeping overcoats for men and svelte skirts for women. Liza Gennaro’s choreography utilizes the swirl and sweep of the handsome costumes in the numbers at the mansion. The orphans are appropriately patched and ragged, and their loose aprons and long under drawers give them room to turn handsprings and scrub floors while they shout about it all.
The show runs two hours, plus a 15-minute intermission—not quite enough time on opening night for so many little girls and their moms. Still, I think they’d all agree with Annie’s tuneful response when the maids bow and ask for orders: “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here.”
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