Annie at TPAC

Little Orphan Annie debuted as a comic strip in 1924: one hundred years ago. It became a radio show (you may have seen Ralphie decode its secret message in the film A Christmas Story) and was made into several movies before being adapted into a Broadway musical in 1977. Many of us are familiar with the musical through one of its three film adaptations. I grew up watching the 1982 version, with Carol Burnett, Tim Curry, and Bernadette Peters. I haven’t seen the Emmy-winning 1999 made-for-television version, but I did unfortunately see the 2014 adaptation. Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis did the best that could be done with the new script, but the film had overproduced music and as much personality as an Apple Store. Annie has been doing its North American tour, with different casts, off and on for the past ten years, and it came to TPAC the weekend before Easter.

Probably what has led to the long life of the character and specifically the musical is the balanced writing, which makes Annie’s character more Anne of Green Gables than an urban Pollyanna. The musical is simple, following a string of happy adventures: the young orphan Annie lives in a rough orphanage during the Great Depression. Miss Hannigan is a mean alcoholic in charge of the orphanage. Annie runs away and saves a dog from the pound, but is caught and returned to the orphanage just in time to be invited to stay for two weeks over Christmas at billionaire Oliver Warbucks’ mansion on Park Avenue. She delights in being taken care of by him and his kind staff, the first kind and nurturing adults she’s met. Warbucks realizes how his life has been missing love and decides he wants to adopt her, but she wants to find her real parents, and Warbucks tries to help her. There are scam artists in disguise, visits to radio shows and the White House.

Annie at the White House. Photo Credit: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

My only complaint with the show is that it has the annoying trope of making historical personages appear just because they were alive at the time: after a visit to FDR and where she sings a reprise of “Tomorrow,” the new inspired Cabinet invents Keynesian economics and the New Deal. The plot is simple and pretty low stakes, with no attempts at being a tearjerker or feigning deep messages, making for a chill watch that’s good for families. The opening night crowd was full of families, some with rather small children, and they gave a positive energy to watching the show.

The music of Annie is great: lovely melodies, great beats, and fun corniness. My favorites are “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” “Maybe,” “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” and the hilariously grumpy “Little Girls.” The only annoying song is “N.Y.C.,” which is a slow and self-congratulatory ode to the city. “We’d Like to Thank You,” sung by homeless New Yorkers to Herbert Hoover, has a great matchup of adulating lyrics and mocking gestures. Most of the good songs are in the first act, but it doesn’t feel too unbalanced; except for “N.Y.C” none feel long, and with multiple reprises in the second act the good songs aren’t left behind.

The March 27 performance at TPAC was very enjoyable, despite some imbalance in the sound production, which was too loud for the hall, causing some unnecessary shrillness from the girls, and making some chorus lyrics difficult to understand. Technical sound issues aside, the music quality is great, especially the brass. The orchestration is colorful and varied (including a banjo and a sousaphone) and many of the songs are quite fast, but the orchestra nails it with ease.

Christopher Swan and Rainier Treviño. Photo Credit: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

The singing is excellent. Rainier Treviño has control and range, which is certainly called for since as the lead role, Annie’s songs are challenging and frequent. Christopher Swan downplayed his vocal ability as the gruff Oliver Warbucks, but his strong voice still managed to show artistry. My favorite performer of the night was Stefanie Londino, who plays Miss Hannigan. “Little Girls” is a funny song, but her fantastic voice is sincerely impressive. Her character is the main comedy element in the show, and she makes sure her every second counts. A small part of the musical that got a huge reaction was the presence of a dog, Seamus, to play the part of Sandy, Annie’s rescue. The entire audience made a huge “awww” sound when he appeared, and every interaction with him always got applause. Seamus is well-trained and handles the enthusiastic applause cheerfully.

Stefanie Londino. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

The sets are clear and the costumes are good (although I was mildly disappointed to see that Annie has a simple straight-haired bob instead of crazy curls), making the drab squalor of the orphanage and the bright luxury of Warbucks contrast vibrantly. The chorography is slightly uneven; some scenes, like the opening “It’s The Hard Knock Life,” have exciting energy, the girls using cleaning props as they dance with each other. During “I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here,” it feels like the ensemble isn’t used to its full potential; for an ensemble number there wasn’t much going on. The staging of the radio show, with the sound effects, the bustle, and the comical tap dance bit is very enjoyable.

Annie is a classic Broadway show that (unlike many shows) is actually fun for the whole family. With iconic music and a fun, cheerful plot despite its Great Depression setting, it is a good watch in politically fraught times. 

Although their run at TPAC is over, Annie will continue on tour through May. For more information, see Tour Dates – Annie.

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