Los Angeles Theater Review: ANNIE (Musical Theatre West in Long Beach)

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by Tony Frankel on November 1, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles

SHE’S BA-A-A-ACK

Annie, the sugar-coated phenomenon that seems to have the life of an Everlasting Gobstopper, is back on the boards, courtesy of Musical Theatre West in Long Beach. The show, about comic strip legend Little Orphan Annie, keeps being remounted for a reason: this feel-good Depression-era musical has remarkably melodious tunes (music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin), tongue-in-cheek dialogue (book by Thomas Meehan), and antagonists that broach the subjects of alcoholism and ribaldry in such a way that parents can have a chuckle, even as their kids gleefully watch a heroine that they can relate to.

Annie photo by Ken Jacques

Plucky Annie (Melody Hollis) was dumped at an orphanage by parents who left behind a locket and a note saying that they will return some day. After a failed attempt at escaping the gloomy institution, and its villainous administrator Miss Hannigan (Andrea McArdle), Annie is brought to the home of 5th Avenue billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Jeff Austin) for Christmas. Her gutsy brand of optimism wins over Warbucks, his staff, and, eventually, FDR! (Mark Capri). Along the way, we are introduced to some characters as scandalous and loveable as anything Damon Runyon could come up with.

Annie photo by Ken JacquesMusical Theatre West always impresses with their ability to bring in some of the best talent to their shows, but as Annie, Melody Hollis is quite simply a star – she emotes, moves well, and belts songs with aplomb. Jeff Austin is in great voice, and treats us to a Warbucks who easily segues from irascible to vulnerable. The standout of the night is Shannon Warne as Warbuck’s secretary, Grace Farrell. (Warne also stole our hearts in the re-envisioned Camelot at Pasadena Playhouse.)

To say that Annie is optimistic is an understatement; it’s dripping with cute, thanks to standards like “Tomorrow.” But it pulls at your heartstrings with such fervor that the cynically-inclined may feel exhausted instead of renewed. Even the best tasting candy in the world can make your teeth ache after a while. The device that offsets this saccharine overload comes in the form of the villains, namely Miss Hannigan, her brother Rooster, and his moll Lily St. Regis, all of whom conspire to bilk Warbucks out of a $50,000 reward he has offered for the return of Annie’s parents.

Annie photo by Ken JacquesFor this production, Andrea McArdle, the original 1977 Annie, is cast as Miss Hannigan. The part, originally played by dynamo comedienne Dorothy Loudon, calls for acute comic timing and a tour-de-force performance; unfortunately, Miss McArdle’s casting turns out to be more of a novelty than a revelation. She looks great, and the woman, no doubt, has pipes, but she just doesn’t pull off the sight gags and line readings with the precision necessary to get laughs (which can make your teeth ache for a whole different reason).

Our other villains, Michael Paternostro as Rooster and Bets Malone (hysterical as Lily), are played with delicious humor, but even they can’t seem to find the laughs once they pretend to be Annie’s long-lost parents. One suspects that director Steven Glaudini had his hands full getting such a massive undertaking on its feet – the girls!, the dogs!, the snow! – that he left most actors to their own devices. Mr. Glaudini and choreographer Roger Castellano bring a great deal of charm to this production, especially in the four opening numbers, “Maybe,” “Hard Knock Life,” “Tomorrow,” and “Hooverville”; once Miss McArdle enters the scene with “Little Girls,” however, the show steers into a sea of sweetness that offers lovely moments, but teeters awfully close to a Chinese Water Torture of cloying situations.

Still, with abundant talent and some rollicking good numbers, this Annie offers families the chance to see a show together; one that could lift their spirits during our own economic downturn. And, who knows, the Carpenter Center may just be the place where their children (our future thespians) are bit by the theatre bug.

Annie photo by Ken Jacques

Annie photo by Ken Jacquesphotos by Ken Jacques

Annie
Musical Theatre West
Richard and Karen Carpenter
Performing Arts Center
Cal State Long Beach
ends on November 14, 2010
for tickets, call 562.856.1999 or visit Musical

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