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Seattle by Jonathan Frank

Annie

It's hard to believe that Annie is over 20 years old, and it is more than a little depressing to realize that I have literally grown up with Annie (and with 'Tomorrow ringing in my ears) for that entire time. I was living in Norwalk, Connecticut when Annie first premiered, and we were inundated with Annie on TV through commercials and news items. I had the biggest crush on Andrea McArdle and wanted desperately to be an orphan (and was crushed in turn to find out that there were no boy orphans). Sadly, I never got the chance to see the original Broadway production of Annie, which ran for 2,377 performances, winning seven Tony awards and becoming the 11th longest running show in the process. But shed no tears for me, my friends, I have more than made up for that deficiency. In the past 20 years I have seen at least five different productions, been in two (playing every minor male role in the process, including a Fosse-esque "Star to Be"), and even assistant directed a production (with a director who loathed children and put me in charge of staging the orphans' scenes ... as well as the infamous "Tomorrow" scene, since that number left him in an apoplectic fit). This means that I am not only familiar with Annie, but I verge on the over-familiar, and the thought of seeing it again filled me with a touch of resignation mixed with dread. Luckily, the current touring production of Annie manages the near-impossible, making the show fresh and enjoyable through a winning cast and solid direction.

Since Annie has been presented in 17 foreign languages and is one of the most lucrative stage properties ever written, I doubt that there too many people who are unfamiliar with the show. But in case there are, here is some background information. Annie is based on the long running Tribune comic strip Little Orphan Annie and deals with Annie's quest to find the parents that abandoned her at the orphanage. It was originally directed by Martin Charnin, who also wrote the lyrics, and has music by Charles Strouse and a book by Thomas Meehan. For the 20th anniversary production, the original Broadway team was reunited to remount, and in some places re-think, the show. The show is touring and for some odd reason is still being touted as "The 20th Anniversary Tour," even though Annie won its Tonys in 1977.

The heart of the show, of course, rests in the girl playing the title roll. Brittany Kissinger, who played the part in the recent Broadway revival (after the well publicized firing of the original child actress) is perfect in the roll. She is a surprisingly good actor who never relies on simply being cute to win over the audience. She also possesses solid vocal technique and does not sing her songs in the annoying, screechy, "Annie" manner which has been the ruin of many a young girl's voice and an audience's eardrums. Instead, her performance style more closely resembles Daisy Eagan in The Secret Garden than Andrea McArdle in the original production. Her rendition of "Maybe" at the top of the show was a pleasant surprise; instead of the belted screechy manner in which the song is usually performed, she turned it into a lullaby and an introspective monologue. She possess a solid belt as well, and utilized it effectively when the role and the music demanded it. It was wonderful to see a production where I did not have to worry about the damage being inflicted on the actress's voice. The fact that she has been performing this role, both in Annie and its ill-fated sequel Annie Warbucks, for so long with no apparent damage is promising indeed, and I have great hopes that she will continue to find a life and a career after Annie.

The rest of the cast is exceptionally strong, and there is more acting done in this production than I have ever seen in past mountings of the show. Conrad John Schuck, who played Daddy Warbucks on Broadway for over a year in the 80's, is excellent, and manages to make the transition from Scrooge to beloved father-figure believable. Former Seattle-ite Kay Story is winning in the under-written part of Grace, Warbuck's secretary, by acting out the subtext through many humorous comic turns. The orphans are all cute and spunky and, as usual, the part of Molly, played by Kristin Danielle Klabunde, is the scene stealer.

The biggest surprise in the show was Sally Struthers, playing the comic villain of the piece, Miss Hannigan. Not only does she possess a much better voice than I expected, with a credible belt and range, but she also held her own against the dancing skills of Laurent Giroux as Rooster and Karen Byer-Blackwell as Lily. Her Miss Hannigan was unlike any I had seen before. She was a collection of nervous (and drunken) tics and neurosis, and was possessed of a whiskey voice I never expected to come out of Sally Struthers. After seeing too many Miss Hannigans crippled by PC sensibilities, it was nice to see her back as a boozer, especially one who is driven to drink by all those little girls.

The production is lavish and continues to be a guilty pleasure. My only complaint with this production was with some of the tinkering done to the show. For some reason, they cut the number "We'd like to Thank You Herbert Hoover," which has always been a favorite of mine as a performer and an audience member. I always thought that it provided a needed contrast to the opulence of the Warbuck's manor, as well as setting up the era and the problems faced by FDR and his new deal. But overall, this production of Annie is highly entertaining, and manages to find new depths and discoveries, thanks to a winning combination of a solid cast and director.

Annie has always been one of those 'guilty pleasure' shows which can become deadly in the wrong hands. Spunky kids and cute animals, especially when combined with a frothy book and score, can veer a production dangerously into saccharine territory. Annie manages to maintain that fine line between sweet and cloying. It's like a piece of divinity; frothy, light and sweet enough to enjoy every now and then, but nothing you would want a steady diet of, or even to sample too often. If you have been neglecting your theatrical sweet tooth, this production of Annie, currently playing at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle until February 7th and touring throughout the country, is not a bad way to satisfy it.


- Jonathan Frank



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