Theater Review: ANNIE (Hollywood Bowl)

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by Tony Frankel on July 31, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles


For those who think the sun won’t come up until 2020, here comes another Annie, that 1977 optimistic spitfire of a musical — based on the Harold Gray comic strip Little Orphan Annie — which insists that simply thinking about a brighter tomorrow will perk you right up. Although a national tour just wrapped up last year, 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.

The sugar-coated phenomenon that seems to have the life of an Everlasting Gobstopper is back on the boards at the Hollywood Bowl for three performances only (which at over 17,000 seats is the audience equivalent of a six-week Broadway run). Even with some tepid portrayals in director Michael Arden’s all-star cast, resistance is futile to this cunning confection. What if the singing comes before the acting, and the dancing before both? (Choreographer Eamon Foley’s delightful, delectable work is a highlight.) That just makes a calculated musical seem as natural as bookwriter Thomas Meehan’s well-plotted melodrama permits — it contains tongue-in-cheek dialogue and antagonists that broach the subjects of alcoholism and ribaldry in such a way that parents can have a chuckle while their kids gleefully watch a relatable heroine. And there were plenty of young moppets in the fairly well-sold crowd at the final performance last Sunday.

11-year-old Annie (Kaylin Hedges) was dumped at a New York City orphanage by parents who left behind a locket and a note saying that they will return. Cheered on by her fellow forgotten girls, the waif tirelessly escapes and re-escapes the gloomy Dickensian institution and its drunk, villainous administrator Miss Hannigan (Ana Gasteyer). (The six precious heart-stealing savages in the workhouse are Marlow Barkley, Amadi Chapata, Noe Lynds, Rae Martinez, Olivia Madison Zenetzis, and the glorious scene-stealer, seven-year-old Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja)

When Annie is brought to the home of 5th Avenue billionaire Oliver Warbucks (David Alan Grier) for Christmas, her gutsy brand of optimism wins over the cranky industrialist, his secretary Grace Farrell (Lea Salonga), staff, and, eventually, FDR himself (Steven Weber). Along the way, we are introduced to some characters as scandalous and loveable as anything Damon Runyon could come up with, including Hannigan’s conniving brother Rooster (Roger Bart) and his ditzy squeeze Lily St. Regis (Megan Hilty). And with remarkably melodious tunes that evoke the ’20s and ’30s (music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin), the sometimes cloying but cumulatively endearing score both softens the Christmastide story and keeps our toes a-tappin’ as those cute kids hoof in front of set designer Dan Laffrey’s giant red ANNIE letters that twirl and move to suggest sets that were sorely needed. Come to think of it, there were times that this felt like a concert staged reading.

The runaway hits of the night are Lea Salonga, who sounds awesome and creates a three-dimensional character as Grace, and Megan Hilty as Rooster’s moll. Since few actors had rich choices, Salonga’s thick, New Yawk dialect, no-nonsense demeanor, and upright posture — and Hilty’s billowing, belting, bubbling blond bombshell — makes me think that actors were left to their own devices to make bold choices (Salonga better start memorizing Momma Rose — it’s her turn to do Gypsy!)

Gasteyer enters a little drunk as Hannigan, but never does anything else — no tremors, no mental derangement, no physical clumsiness… nothin’; it’s as if she’s intimidated to be up there. Likewise, Grier as Warbucks, who isn’t gruff enough to make any sentimentality believable. Even the great Roger Bart can’t squeeze humor out of his turn as one of Annie’s fake parents, resorting to his Mel Brooks shenanigans (The Producers, Young Frankenstein) — but, boy, can he ever do a double take.

Yet when the singing begins — with Todd Ellison leading the orchestra atop a rotating second-story landing center stage — the show soars as high in 2018 as the market fell low in 1929. And even though her acting fell short as well, Hedges’ Annie belted from here to Poughkeepsie.

With corporations currently creeping into government like earwigs, I’m glad that Annie is basically a crash course in Neo-feudalism, its focus devoted to appreciating the wisdom and charity of a tough-minded but tenderhearted 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. Or that we’re to believe that the entire New Deal and its rescue of the American Dream got invented after Hedges’ big-belting Annie tears out “Tomorrow” and the imbecilic Cabinet suddenly gets serious about unemployment. And yet, in a world drenched in negativity and divisiveness, a little optimism goes a long way.

photos by Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging

Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave.
played August 27-29, 2018
for more events, call 323.850.2000 or visit The Hollywood Bowl

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