note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
The U.S. National Tour’s new production of “Annie” (at Boston’s Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre through Nov. 16), couldn’t be more timely.
After nationwide, hotly-contested elections in which the Republicans swept congressional seats, this version of the 1930’s, post-stock market crash musical, helmed by original lyricist-director Martin Charnin, draws sharp political and societal lines that are mirrored in today’s post-recession America.
Times were tough then, and they’re tough now, with burgeoning homeless and unemployment numbers. Generally, the “Annie” set is more lightweight and eyeball-popping, but Charnin commissioned Tony Award-winning designer Beowulf Boritt to create a more realistic, gritty look. Annie’s orphanage in 1932 is a three-tiered, grimy, crowded place. A dreary, Hooverville homeless conclave gives affirmation to the people’s satiric lament, “We’d Like to Thank You, (Herbert Hoover)”. And Ken Billington’s lighting and Tony nominee Peter Hylenski’s sound design add a sinister glow to those hard-knock times.
New York City’s side streets, back alleys, and the city’s skyline on stage are no bargain, either. The Roxy Theatre District, usually emblazoned with neon lights, is also downplayed; but billionaire Oliver Warbucks’ Fifth Avenue mansion and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR’s) White House retain their opulence.
Although “Annie’s serious side resonates with adults, the musical is one of those shows that families enjoy seeing together, especially around the holidays. Little girls and boys were rapt throughout the 2-1/2 hour production, and many sang iconic hit songs, “Maybe,” “It’s A Hard Knock Life,” “Tomorrow,” ”I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” “NYC,” and theme song, “Annie,” along with the cast. They happily wriggled in their seats to the superlative strains of Music Director Keith Levenson and his blended orchestra of tour and local musicians, and mimicked choreographer Liza Gennaro’s energetic, upbeat moves. Gennaro, daughter of famous choreographer, Peter Gennaro, has restored her father’s lively dance steps.
Suzy Benzinger has created authentic-looking, 1930s clothing, and award-winning animal trainer William Berloni has found an ideal dog, Sunny, a 4-year-old rescue terrier mix, to portray Annie’s beloved stray mutt, Sandy.
The canine co-star interacts with 9-year-old star, Issie Swickle, of Davie, Fla., as though they belong together. Making her tour debut, Issie is a talented little girl with a big voice, an inspiration as Annie. She’s a force to watch for in the future. So’s plucky scene stealer Lilly Mae Steward, also making her national tour debut as little orphan, Molly. She dances, tumbles, sings, and draws sympathy and laughter like a seasoned performer. The ensembles are also noteworthy.
By now, theatergoers know the story of the plucky,optimistic,11-year-old orphan, Annie, who has the great fortune of spending the holiday with billionaire entrepreneur Warbucks, and even greater fortune of his wanting to adopt her. But Annie insists she’s not an orphan - that somewhere, out there, her parents, were forced to leave her on the doorstep of the orphanage 11 years ago, and they’ll want her back - “Maybe”.
With Warbucks’ connections in the highest places, including FDR and the FBI, they launch on a nationwide search for her parents, offering a $50,000 reward, attracting several imposters, including cruel, orphanage matron “Aggie” Hannigan’s crooked brother, Rooster, and his dumb blonde moll, Lily. Lynn Andrews is villainously despicable as liquor-swilling, little girl hating, orphanage matron, Miss Hannigan, and brings the house down with her solo, “Little Girls.” So’s lanky Garrett Deagon as Rooster, who with Andrews and Lily (Lucy Werner), kick up their heels in “Easy Street”.
Although Gilgamesh Taggett as Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks is more stiff, formal and formidable, his singing voice and duets with Annie in “Something Was Missing,” and “I Don’t Need Anything But You,” are touching. Taggett also interacts well with Allan Baker, portraying FDR, but Ashley Edler as Warbucks‘ kindly assistant, Grace Farrell, is overshadowed here.
The story ends happily, with a resounding finale.
The US National tour opened in late September in Detroit, and continues through July 26, 2015, but nowhere else in New England, so catch it now, while you can.
BOX INFO:Two-act, 2-1/2 hour new production of Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s musical, book by Thomas Meehan, presented by the U.S. National Tour company, through Nov. 16 at Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre,270 Tremont St., Boston:Tuesday-Saturday, at 7 p.m.; matinees, Tuesday, Nov. 11, and Saturday, Nov. 15, at 2 p.m.; Sunday, 1,6 p.m. Tickets:$35-$125. Visit the Box Office, www.citicenter.org, call 800-982-2787 or contact Ticketmaster. Groups of 10+, call Citi Performing Arts Center Group Sales at 617-532-1116 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org.