Broadway in Tucson
Leapin’ lizards! Limited-run 'Annie' worth effort to catch this weekend
Annie’s dog gets loving chorus of ‘awwws’ from audience with each appearance
If the producers of “Annie” listened to the old showbiz saw about not working with animals or children, they wouldn’t have much of a musical. But “Annie,” a glib, Tony-winning Broadway success based loosely on the classic “Little Orphan Annie” cartoon strip from the Great Depression, gives us plenty of kids, all singing and dancing at a professional level, plus one heckuva loveable mutt.
The show is the season opener for Broadway in Tucson, presented at UA’s Centennial Hall in collaboration with UA Presents. Other Broadway in Tucson shows this season include “Phantom of the Opera,” “Riverdance,” “The Book of Mormon” and “42nd Street.”
A straightforward story
The narrative of “Annie” is straightforward – plucky, adorable, red-headed orphan warms the heart of Oliver Warbucks, a billionaire industrialist going through the motions of philanthropy to bolster his public image. Along the way, Annie inspires Franklin Delano Roosevelt, uplifts our hearts and adopts a dog.
Villains include orphanage headmistress Mrs. Hannigan, her even more nefarious brother, Rooster Hannigan, and his girlfriend, Lily.
The show opens by establishing Annie’s optimism with the song, “Maybe,” and then shifts into high gear with the seven-girl ensemble strutting and singing “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” followed by Annie’s even more optimistic, “Tomorrow.”
Serendipitously, Warbuck’s assistant, Grace Farrell, selects Annie to spend two weeks at Warbucks’ mansion during Christmas for PR purposes. Annie, naturally, charms the mansion’s staff and even Warbucks himself. Smitten, Warbucks kicks off a massive search, including a $50,000 reward, to find Annie’s parents.
Rooster, taking advantage of his sister’s background knowledge of the girl, convincingly presents himself and Lily as Annie’s long lost mother and father. That plot development, which doesn’t occur until the last quarter of the two and a half hour show, quickly unravels and everything is set right for the finale, with Warbucks looking at Grace in a new, admiring light, while the orphans and President Roosevelt celebrate both Christmas and the New Deal.
A high-kicking cast
Ten-year old Issie Swickle played Annie on opening night (Angelina Carballo spells her in the role during select performances). Swickle has a confident singing voice with great pitch. She also has an authoritative stage presence, despite her age and size.
For the girls’ opening numbers on opening night, the wireless mic vocals in the boxy Centennial Hall were a bit shrill and underbalanced compared to the 10-piece orchestra in the pit, a temporary problem that obscured the lyrics of “It’s The Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow.” The Centennial stage is low, so music director Keith Levenson was often visible from the shoulders up to seats in the center section as he gave cues to the singers. Parents of smaller children may want to consider booster seats.
With “We’d Like To Thank You,” the adult ensemble appears, initially as homeless street people who embrace the runaway Annie. The earlier balance and tone problems were already corrected by then. The actors are later repurposed as the Warbuck’s staff and servants, as Roosevelt’s brain trust and as radio show performers.
Gilgamesh Taggett made for an imposing Warbucks, big and bald, a bit self-centered, but kind and caring once you got his attention. Lynn Andrews was particularly delicious as the ridiculously inappropriate warder of the orphanage, Mrs. Hannigan. You sense that she and the kids are secretly having a great time being mean to each other on stage. Garrett Deagon, as Rooster Hannigan, gets to showcase both his acting chops and dance moves as the chief ne’er do well.
Ashley Edler brings a smart elegance to the role of Grace Farrell, Warbuck’s assistant who knows him better than he knows himself. Brendan Malafronte does a nice job as radio performer and host Bert Healy in the gratuitous live radio show from the era that opens Act II. The scene gives us “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile,” and an opportunity to show how bumbling Warbucks is when outside his element, but the scene still feels like an outlier to the narrative.
Best of show
Aside from the obvious “It’s A Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” numbers, the most engaging song and dance combination is “Easy Street” (and its reprise) with Rooster, Mrs. Hannigan and Lily (Lucy Werner), since they’re the bad guys. The sharp ensemble choreography of “We’d Like to Thank You,” “N.Y.C.,” and “You Won’t Be An Orphan For Long,” is the kind of spectacle that you expect in this sort of show and this production delivered.
And speaking of spectacle, the massive, multiple sets helped keep the story moving, with numerous seamless changes, a case study in stage design. The final staircase scene in Warbucks’ mansion, where Annie appears with her newly coiffed trademark curly hair, uses every foot of depth available on the Centennial Hall stage.
Although a minor character with only a few minutes on stage, Annie’s dog, “Sandy,” got a loving chorus of ‘awwws’ from the audience with each appearance. Apologies to the dog, but it was impossible to tell if it was Macy or Sunny, who share the role, on stage opening night, though I suspect, being troupers, it’s always pretty hard to tell them apart from a distance.
“Annie” is billed as “one of the best family musicals ever penned,” and indeed, it sits in the canon right alongside “Mary Poppins” and “Peter Pan.” Plenty of young people, almost all girls, were evident on opening night. This very well put-together show would serve as a thrilling introduction to musical theatre for younger audience members, but older patrons will also be satisfied by the high quality of talent and production values here.