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Chicago by Charles Eichler

Annie At Drury Lane Oakbrook

It is hard to believe that Annie is celebrating its 25th anniversary. First inspired in 1972 by Broadway director and lyricist Martin Charnin (who wrote the lyrics for the show) and later enhanced with the book by Thomas Meehan and music by Charles Strouse, Annie opened on Broadway in 1977, where it won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. This suburban revival, directed by Ray Frewen, will continue through the holiday season here in Chicago.

Frewen has been consistent lately in directing top-notch productions at the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook, Illinois. Evita , My Fair Lady and On Golden Pond have been his latest successes. The theatre is a plush, comfortable one and attracts a suburban crowd who are appreciative of Frewen's efforts.

Annie is quite tame in comparison to musicals that have developed since 1977. This particular production, in fact, is rather flat for several reasons in its telling of the story of comic strip heroine "Little Orphan Annie" in a musical format.

First of all, blame it on the script. In trying to suggest Annie's struggles in trying to find her true parents and her life in the orphanage with Miss Hannigan, the show lacks tension. Musical and dance numbers are dropped in merely to keep the pace of the show going. There is also an abundance of "cuteness" directed toward the title character. "Tomorrow" is certainly her number and we are reminded of it throughout the show. Annie's interactions with Daddy Warbucks and the minor plot involving Miss Hannigan, Rooster Hannigan and Lily are just too tame and artificial to suggest audience involvement. Maybe this show is just meant for children. As Strouse notes in a program blurb, "This is a show dealing in broad strokes, telling simple stories in as few words as possible."

Unfortunately, the casting here is also weak. Kallie Flynn Childress is spunky as the orphan but is too old for the part. She lacks the innocence that gradually allows Annie to become appreciative of Daddy Warbucks in the end. Childress is constantly bobbing her hair and brushing it out of her face. There seems to be more concern for Annie straightening her skirt or fixing her hair than there is in character involvement. The red wig she finally dons in the final number is simply awful - it makes Annie look like Harpo Marx. Childress' singing is intense but almost grating as she reaches for the high notes.

(One side note that is really disturbing in this production: when are they ever going to find a way to amplify performers' voices without using the artificial body mikes which make the actors look like they have a spider slithering down their temple? This is really distracting. Either find a way to disguise the wire so it doesn't look like a growth on the face, or let the performer try to sing and project on his/her own merits!)

It doesn't help that Annie's orphan friends (all good singers) look like sorority sisters rather than fellow inmates at Miss Hannigan's. They all look comfortably choreographed without much individual presence in such numbers as "It's a Hard-Knock Life" and the reprise of "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" in act two.

Miss Hannigan is played with perfect comic strokes by Alene Robertson. Here is an actress who has played everything in Chicagoland theatre from Vera Charles in Mame to Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. She fits the role perfectly. I have seen her portray Hannigan before, and in each performance there are subtle nuances - a jiggle, a roll of the eyes, a double-take - that are just plain fun, natural and the sign of a true professional.

David Girolmo (as Daddy Warbucks) is almost too comfortable in his role but is ably assisted by Catherine Lord as Grace, who looks elegant in every costume she wears, and she acts and sings well as the character who eventually brings Warbucks and Annie together. The ensemble cast doesn't really have much to do but grace the stage in several production numbers. I like the irony suggested in the "We'd Like to Thank You" number, involving victims of the Depression expressing their anger about the government. The three Boylan sisters (Lara Moffett, Cyndey Rosenbaum and Holly Stauder) are to be commended for their funny non-verbal interaction during the "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" number.

Production credits are adequate. Drury Lane often uses a series of drops to depict the background for scenes and the ones used in Annie are fine. There is also a turntable center stage. I wish it were used more, especially in the "NYC" number when Annie, Grace and Warbucks savor the varied sights of New York City.

What I miss is the "cartoonish" fun that a production like this should have. There are many enjoyable moments, but also many moments that just feel leaden, as if the characters are not having fun or merely playing a one-dimensional part.

Despite my reservations, this show should be an instant audience pleaser. Annie plays at Drury Lane Theatre, OakBrook Terrace, Illinois through December 31st. Tickets can be arranged by calling the Box Office at (630)530-0111.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- Charles



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