Theater Review: ANNIE (National Tour)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 10, 2016

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


The first Christmas special came early this year: another national tour of the industrial-strength 1977 heart-warmer, Annie. Resistance is futile to this cunning confection. Again we warm to the tale of the plucky, Depression-era orphan redhead with an equally scrappy dog who never finds her parents but settles for a life of unimaginable wealth with Daddy Warbucks and a surrogate mother aptly named Grace.


It would be like kicking Sandy to pan this 39-year-old classic (not a smart idea since a dog on stage is synonymous with irresistible). The eye-popping staging by lyricist and director Martin Charnin (his 19th time at the helm!) glows with authenticity and looks gorgeous. Beowulf Boritt’s various, detailed and meticulously crafted sets leave nothing to the imagination (not a bad deal with this plot), especially Warbucks’s mausoleum of a mansion. Suzy Benzinger’s early Depression costumes are fashion-plate accurate; time capsules in motion. Composed by Charles Strouse, the jaunty songs like “N.Y.C.” and “You Won’t Be an Orphan for Long,” richly shaped by Music Director Keith Levenson, could lift lead. Even if the singing comes before the acting, and the dancing before both, that just makes a calculated musical seem as natural as bookwriter Thomas Meehan’s melodramatic plot permits.


Almost stealing the show with his irrepressible delight in being the alpha billionaire Oliver Warbucks, Gilgamesh Taggett invents an American Ebenezer Scrooge who only needs a lesson in love from a little girl to merit his money. A louder-than-life Annie, Tori Bates plays the leather-lunged tyke with brassy confidence. Erin Fish could hoof nasty Miss Hannigan in her sleep; her funky chicken in “Easy Street” can amuse and convulse. Casey Prins’ gracious Grace and Jeffrey B. Duncan’s chipper FDR are newsreel-perfect. The orphan tykes, whether spitting out “It’s the Hard Knock Life” or “A New Deal for Christmas,” are your proverbial angels with dirty faces.


So, yes, Annie, where you’re never fully dressed without a smile, will melt the hearts and soften the brains of crowds at the Cadillac Palace Theatre (this national tour continues through May, 2017). But for all the kneejerk, madcap mirth it sports, there’s a sad side to these songs. In the aftermath of Bernie Sanders, the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and the advent of “Citizens United”-style efforts to purchase politicians, there’s something a bit sinister about the alleged benefactor Oliver Warbucks (that last name says it all) and his ability to boss around Franklin Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, Supreme Court justices, and anyone else around on a whim. Big Daddy indeed.


Sure, this Depression-era tyro, who grew up poor in Hell’s Kitchen but invested his way into Midas-like money, adopts an adorable red-headed orphan girl, rescues her adorable dog Sandy, and discovers the truth about Annie’s real parents—and exposes false pretenders as well as the harridan Miss Hannigan, who happens to be a freeloading public servant exploiting the Municipal Orphanage. But beneath the Brooks Brothers suit Daddy Warbucks is a hypocrite, at one point boasting how he made all his money himself and never expected help from anyone, then blasting F.D.R. for not doing something to get his factories working ahead.


Cloying but cumulatively endearing, the songs soften the Christmastide story; Charnin’s superb production values can’t disguise the fact that Annie is basically a crash course in neo-feudalism, its focus devoted to appreciating the wisdom and charity of a tough-minded but tender-hearted mogul—Lord Bountiful bestowing blessings like a plutocratic Santa Claus. It doesn’t help that, stripped of dignity or charm, a four-time President of the U.S. seems particularly ripe for ridicule, as wooden as his wheelchair. Or that we’re to believe that the entire New Deal and its rescue of the American Dream got invented after Bates’s big-belting Annie tears out “Tomorrow” and the imbecilic Cabinet suddenly gets serious about unemployment.


The most honest aspect remains Boritt’s evocations of vintage Hoovervilles, shantytowns, slums, and back alleys, contrasted with a resplendent Fifth Avenue where from his block-long manse Warbucks can buy the Mona Lisa, then succumb to buyer’s remorse.

A show that never was as naïve as it seemed now reeks a bit of “1%” selfishness and Red State indifference. But, boy, the dog is cute.


photos by Joan Marcus

national tour presented by Broadway in Chicago
Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St
ends on November 13, 2016
for tickets, call 800.775.2000 or visit Broadway In Chicago
tour continues through May, 2017
for dates and cities, visit Annie
for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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