Friday, October 16, 2015

Review: ANNIE, A Perfect Example of Optimism's Staying Power

Gilgamesh Taggett and Issie Swickle. Photos by Joan Marcus

As I was waiting for my theatre guest to arrive at the Pantages Tuesday night for the opening of Annie, a school bus pulled up. Within seconds, a gaggle of little girls spilled out onto the sidewalk shrieking in anticipation while taking pictures of the sparkly marquee on their smart phones. They were only minutes away from seeing her – that spunky little red-haired orphan, Annie, and they could barely contain themselves. 

Their excitement was infectious, their joy real, and in that moment I realized something fairly obvious. It doesn’t matter how much the world has changed, Annie is a musical that will always have an audience. There will always be little girls and little boys breathlessly waiting to hear that much loved (and often reviled) anthem of optimism, “Tomorrow” sung by a plucky adolescent who never loses her ability to look on the bright side.

I would bet that part of the appeal is most of those little girls see themselves as Annie, or see themselves as the Annie they would aspire to be: smart, honest, kind-hearted, and resilient regardless of the challenges life throws in her path. It was comforting to see their innocence.

Thomas Meehan (book), Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin’s (lyrics) Tony Award-winning Broadway musical has been around since 1977. It has had multiple national and international tours, and its regional and school productions must number in the tens of thousands by now. Optimism sells and this is one musical that wears its label “family-friendly” with pride. 

Charnin has directed the show 18 times previously, including two of its Broadway iterations – the original which starred Andrea McArdle and Dorothy Loudon, and its first revival in 1997 with Brittny Kissinger and Nell Carter. The most recent touring production playing through November 1st at the Hollywood Pantages marks his 19th time at the helm.

Issie Swickle and Lilly Mae Stewart

For this tour, 10-year old Issie Swickle dons the red wig as Annie and Lynn Andrews steps into the comic shoes of Miss Hannigan. At her young age, Swickle has yet to develop her acting chops but there’s no way you’ll miss her singing voice. Like all of the urchins, her vocal placement is laser-focused right through the nasal cavities and the sound is bright and resonant. The volume is always forte, and the diction is crisper than crisp.

Of course, what is sacrificed in order to accomplish that precision is anything that comes close to nuance, so don’t expect any. This is a straightforward, stand-and-smile-your-way-through-the-song-no-matter-what style of direction from beginning to end. Prepare for that and you’ll be able to appreciate the show’s presentational wholesomeness in the spirit in which Charnin offers it. It’s hokey and cheesy and full of the stuff that makes the younger set scream to the rafters all night long. Musical sugar on steroids – that’s Annie.

Andrews’ Miss Hannigan (my guest and I decided) is a combination of Melissa McCarthy and Nell Carter giving a Mama Rose performance like her life depended on it. She’s a ballsy singer and funny with the shtick. Plus, she can dance like nobody’s business. But playing to the audience so broadly keeps her in superficial territory, even if she is the crowd favorite.

Garrett Deagon (Rooster) can get away with broad for funny’s sake because that’s all the character is. He’s a loosey goosey con man with a vacuous bleached blonde as a sidekick (Lucy Werner as Lily). You don’t expect more so he easily delivers. Gilgamesh Taggett is a likeable, if somewhat predictable, Oliver Warbucks.

Issie Swickle and the Company of Annie

What was unpredictable -- and quite beautiful -- were Beowulf Boritt’s floor to ceiling backdrops of New York City. Like three-dimensional vintage photographs in an antique viewfinder, their intricate detail and vast perspective gave this touring production a much more elegant rendering than I would have thought possible.

So grab a kid or two and dress yourself up in your best smile. Annie is the kind of classic musical that doesnt apologize for its saccharine sweetness. It embraces it with everything its got. And if you need one more reason to go, it has a built-in heart-melter. Sandy, the dog. And you cant go wrong on stage with a dog. Ever.

L-R: Isabel Wallach, Lilly Mae Stewart, LillyBea Ireland, Issie Swickle,
Angelina Carballo, Sydney Shuck and Adia Dant

Lynn Andrews

Lucy Werner, Garrett Deagon, and Lynn Andrews 

The Company of ANNIE

ANNIE
October 13 – November 1, 2015
Hollywood Pantages
6233 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Tickets: (323) 468-1768 or www.hollywoodpantages.com

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