“Hey Hobo-man! Hey ‘Dapper-Dan’!”–you’ve both got your style but “The Segerstrom Center For The Arts” in Costa Mesa California has got “Annie”! The Tony Award-winning” musical based on the world-famous comic strip by Harold Gray featuring a book by Thomas Meehan with Music by Charles Strouse and Lyrics by Martin Charnin settled into ‘the O.C.” for a two-week run beginning Wednesday, May 13th, 2015.
Set in New York City during a bleak depression-era winter of December 1933, everyone’s favorite orphan suffers the indignities of a “Hard Knock Life” at “The New York City Municipal Orphanage-Girl’s Annex” run by the embittered matron “Miss Hannigan” who regularly makes her young charges’ lives unbearable. Unlike most of the other kids there though, spunky Annie clings steadfastly to the belief that her parents are still alive and will one day return to claim her, having left her on New Year’s Eve 1922, with her part of a locket and a note claiming they would one day return and use it to identify her by. With the holidays quickly approaching Billionaire Oliver Warbucks invites her to spend two weeks with him, initially hoping that having an orphan spend the holidays at his Park Avenue estate will ‘improve’ his public image as a ruthless captain of industry. Yet once there, his heart softened by Annie’s irrepressible charm and optimism, he offers to adopt her only to be stunned when she (at first) refuses—asking instead for his help to find her real mom and dad. He agrees, offering a whopping reward for Annie’s parents, which is announced on NBC’s “Hour Of Smiles” radio program, where upon it attracts the attention of Miss Hannigan’s no-good just-paroled brother, “Rooster” and his floozy girlfriend, “Lily St. Regis” (“I was named after the hotel”.) They agree to cut Hannigan in on the action if she helps them with some ‘specifics” about the girl; but never fear: this classic family musical has as happy an ending as a Broadway musical has ever conjured up for our young heroine, “Daddy Warbucks”, her dog “Sandy” as well as her orphan friends and the entire nation, once President Roosevelt stops by Warbuck’s mansion to announce “A New Deal’ for Christmas”!
Perhaps more than with any other musical in recent memory, Strouse and Charnin’s buoyant score not only captures the “feel” of the times perfectly, but also provides great insight into the characters whether it be the dejected sense of outrage and hopelessness expressed in “We’d Like To Thank You Herbert Hoover” to the jubilant “I Don’t Need Anything But You” (and of course, even after nearly thirty years, the immortal “Tomorrow” still remains one of the best anthems of resilience and faith since “Keep Your Sunny Side Up” graced the hit-parade back in the actual 1930’s!) Combined with Meehan’s always eloquent script that’s packed with plenty of great references to the ‘pop’ and political culture of the era, it’s no surprise that “Annie” has become one of the most endearing shows ever written. None other than Martin Charnin himself, who not only wrote all of these incredible lyrics, but served as the show’s original Director, has once again returned to the Director’s chair to helm this touring production, where he takes full advantage of all these textual and lyrical virtues. Keeping the pace fairly swift while accentuating all the best comedic moments available, Charnin changes things here and there–altering a line or perhaps throwing in an extra joke at intervals, making this particular production just unpredictable enough to keep it lively and fresh while still unfailingly remaining true to those essences that made “Annie” so great in the first place. Joining him as Choreographer is Liza Gennaro (whose father Peter helped stage the original show back in 1977.) Indeed, for this run Ms. Gennaro has likewise recreated several sections of her father’s Tony-Award winning dances here. Keeping it all humming is Keith Levenson behind the baton of the 10 piece orchestra, while equally distinguished is the scenic design by Beowulf Boritt and costumes by Suzy Benzinger which are exceptionally bright, colorful and uniquely suitable for a musical based on a comic-strip.
The 25-member cast are uniformly amazing and are afforded plenty of opportunities to show off their collective brilliance on which the production runs so well. Given that the story begins so modestly in the confines of the orphanage, focusing on the cast’s younger members, the first really big full (adult) cast production number is the doleful “We’d Like To Thank You Herbert Hoover”, as a rag-tag collection of former high-rollers turned down-and-outers in a makeshift “Hoover-ville” underneath the 59th Street Bridge bemoan their by-gone glory days: “In every pot he said a chicken, but Herbert Hoover he forgot—not only don’t we have the chicken, we ain’t got the pot!”! Then, dispensing with the traditional ‘Servants Dance’ that introduces the hustle and bustle of the Warbucks mansion just before Annie realizes “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here”, the “staff” nonetheless get their moments to shine via their inclusion in the big “NYC” number (complete with new added lyrics) after Annie suggests they might like to be treated to an evening at the movies as well, when Warbucks offers to take her to the Roxy on her first night as his guest. Subsequently, they also add luster and excitement while performing the title tune “Annie”, sung at Annie’s Christmas Eve Adoption celebration, which has been expanded somewhat with the integration of several verses from “We Got Annie”—a number cut from the initial Broadway run but eventually re-inserted into the 1982 film adaptation. Executed in tandem with one another, both songs are improved as a result giving Act Two a delightful lift.
Leading them all is nine-year-old dynamo Issie Swickle as the titular ginger-haired waif with the never-say-die optimism. A likable little lady with a truly prodigious voice and crisp-clear diction, this ensures that each of her songs positively resound throughout Segerstrom Hall’s substantial 3000-seat auditorium. Miss Swickle has us solidly on her side right from those first notes, and her best moments–well, they pretty much all are—but her opening salvo “Maybe” as Annie dreams of the parents who gave her up, is A-plus, as is the iconic “Tomorrow” sung to her new pal, “Sandy” a shaggy-haired terrier mix, after saving him from dog catchers in New York’s St. Mark’s Square. Gilgamesh Taggett is similarly spot-on as the Billionaire industrialist “Oliver ‘Daddy’ Warbucks”. He too, has a voice to be reckoned with which is wonderfully showcased at the start of “NYC”, but it isn’t until after intermission with his solo “Something Was Missing” that the true potency of his inspiring vocal ability is finally heard. This song also features a particularly touching interlude between the pair as “Daddy Warbucks” leads “Annie” in a simple waltz when she consents to be his own little girl. However, Lynn Andrews practically steals the show as the buxom, bumbling villainess “Miss Hannigan”. Her raucous take may be a more sober depiction of the character many might remember but it’s perfectly in line with this entire production. Andrews’ ability to deliver a great gag-line or throw off a pun is always dead-on target (When the orphans excitedly tell her about hearing Annie on the radio, she curses her luck, sarcastically uttering “Next they’ll probably do a musical about her!”) Gifted with a fantastic singing voice as well, she manages to raise the roof with her Act One lament, “Little Girls”, then again joined as part of a dastardly trio of ne’er-do-wells in the jazzy, jivin’ showstopper “Easy Street”.
Another awesome aspect to this show is the first-rate characters who populate it, and outstanding support is provided by Ashley Edler as Warbuck’s devoted and ever resourceful secretary “Grace Farrell”. Although she may seem to be the picture of order and efficiency, Edler provides a few quick clues that Grace may have deeper feelings for her boss than one might first suspect. Moreover, Garrett Deagon in the role of Miss Hannigan’s Con-artist brother “Rooster” offers an interpretation that’s more sly than sleazy or overtly threatening; whereas Cameron Mitchell Bell demonstrates his striking tenor voice in service of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile”, making for a terrific (if slightly pompous) “Bert Healy”—Star of the NBC “Blue Network’s” radio show, “The Oxydent Hour Of Smiles”. Jeffrey B. Duncan too, as the wheelchair-bound President “Franklin Delano Roosevelt” presents the commander-in-chief as kinder and more mild-mannered—not so much clueless about the dire straits his country is in, just in dire need of some inspiration. This makes Annie’s scene at the White House all the more effective where, having introduced him and his cabinet to the ideas expressed in “Tomorrow”, they immediately start plans for the “New Deal”.
“Annie’s” own miniature cheering section are her fellow urchins, including Adia Dant as “Pepper”–the hot-headed ‘bully’ of the group, LillyBea Ireland as the emotional “Tessie”, and Isabel Wallach as the plucky “Duffy”, along with Sydney Shuck who plays “Kate” and Angelina Carballo as the gentle-spirited “July”. So too, pint-sized powerhouse Lilly Mae Stewart also exhibits some remarkable comic expertise herself as “Molly” the littlest orphan. Together, they rock the stage, first with “Hard Knock Life” (—which itself is an absolute knock-out,) then later with their rendition of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile”, and again in the very ‘grand’ finale, “New Deal For Christmas.” Not to be overlooked either are “Sunny” and “Macy”–the dogs who share the position of Annie’s canine cohort, “Sandy”. They may not appear in many scenes, but when they do (including the show’s very last moments when reunited with Annie for good,) it’s unforgettable!
At intermission on opening night, throughout the lobby could be heard patrons blissfully humming snippets of this tune or that (chief among them being “Tomorrow”, naturally) corroborating still further the power of this unabashedly “joyful” show! Little wonder then that by the time the curtain-calls rolled around thoroughly enchanted audience members couldn’t jump to their feet fast enough to give this “Annie” a genuinely well-deserved (and thunderous) ovation! So move them feet’ to 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa Ca. and “The Segerstrom Center For The Arts”. “Annie” plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 2:00 PM and 7:30 PM and Sundays at 1:00 PM and 6:30 PM through Sunday, May 24th 2015. (The 2:00 PM performance on Saturday, May 23, 2015 will also include audio description, open captioning and sign-language interpretation.) Tickets may be obtained by logging onto: www.scfta.org , by phone at (714) 556-2787 or in person between the hours of 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM daily at the Segerstrom Center box office located at: 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
Production Stills By Joan Marcus; Special Thanks to the Media Relations Staff of “The Segerstrom Center For The Arts”, and to the cast and crew of Troika Entertainment’s touring Production of “Annie” ( http://anniethemusical.com ) for making this story possible.