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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Issie Swickle with Sandy
Photo by Joan Marcus

Stepping into the Kings Theatre in Flatbush is like being catapulted back 80 years. The enormous (nearly 4,000-seat) venue, designed in French baroque style complete with bold statuary and swirling pillars, opened as a movie house in 1929 and closed down in 1977. It reopened in January after a stem-to-stern renovation, and stands as a stalwart reminder of how the Great Depression and 1970s pragmatism continue to influence our lives. All of which makes it an oddly perfect venue for the tour of Annie that is playing there through Sunday.

After all, the 1977 musical, which has a book by Thomas Meehan, lyrics by Martin Charnin, and music by Charles Strouse, is set during the Depression, and the classic characters of Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie comic strip are forever trumpeting (and, sometimes, struggling against) the spirit of optimism that was a much-needed balm during the malaise-choked Jimmy Carter era. The synchronicity is solid and, within an admitted set of restrictions and with a wisp of an exception or two, so is this production.

That's good news for musical theatre lovers who, like me, appreciate this roasted-chestnut property for what it is, but who haven't had much of an outlet in recent years. The 2012 Broadway revival was off-key and downbeat, messing around too much with the deceptively fragile material and sapping the show of its heart and bite; before that, another tour that came through Madison Square Garden in 2006 with a distinctly mechanical (if not exhausted), albeit somewhat more sensible, sheen.

This tour, which under the direction of Charnin (who helmed the original production and many since) started in fall of 2014 and is slated to run through next spring, is a purer and more honest one that reveals most of the simple pleasures in this modern minor-landmark work. The story (on the unfathomable assumption it needs recounting), about the spunky red-headed orphan who in 1933 is spirited away from a municipal orphanage run by eternally inebriated Miss Hannigan and into the mansion and arms of the industrial billionaire Oliver Warbucks, is rendered in crisp and clear terms that put the focus where it should be: on the people.

Annie Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

Lynn Andrews is one of the very best Hannigans I've seen: She unlocks the essential nastiness of the character, who tortures her pint-size charges, pursues love (or a passable facsimile) with any vaguely eligible man she meets, and schemes with her brother Rooster to swindle Warbucks out of thousands. But despite playing that part straight, she adds an appliqué of wings-reaching raunchiness that makes sure you (or, to be more accurate, little kids) know to not take her villainy too seriously. Andrews could go a bit further, actually, but overall the balance she's found works.

Gilgamesh Taggett emphasizes the warmer aspects of Warbucks's personality, keeping the man always visible above the moneymaking "monster," while adventurously suggesting that loving Annie is not something that's natural to him and that he'll genuinely have to work at after the curtain comes down. Ashley Edler gives a more traditional reading of Warbucks's smart, secretly loving secretary Grace Farrell, but without overdoing her weak-knee romanticism the way many performers in the part do. Ditto Garrett Deagon as one of the more quietly vicious Roosters I've seen, and Lucy Warner, playing an unusually cagey version of his dopey main squeeze, Lily.

As Annie, Issie Swickle succeeds at meeting the role's copious acting, singing, dancing, and comedy demands, but her work is more creditable than impressive. She's somewhere between sweet and spiky, and between head-y and belt-y, more apt to inspire awws than tears at the tiny girl's wrenching fate and eventual absolution. Like all the other youngsters cast as orphans (Annabelle Wachtel, Molly Rose Meredith, Isabel Wallach, Angelina Carballo, Lillybea Ireland, Emily Moreland), however, she's roundly capable and a pleasure to watch.

So, really, is the rest of this production. Beowulf Boritt's old-fashioned sets strike a fine balance between the funnies page and era-appropriate rotogravure, Suzy Benzinger's costumes gently provide the necessary color and class contrasts (and look to be directly inspired by Theoni V. Aldredge's originals), and Ken Billington's lights are laid-back and comforting. The choreographer is Liza Gennaro, whose famous-of-foot father designed the 1977 dances, and her numbers display both an ecstatic buoyancy and some careful restraint.

Charnin could do with a smidgen more of that, honestly. As has been the case of late, a bit of shtick has crept in that adds the wrong kind of comedy at the wrong moments (the final, poignant Christmas scene is the most notable victim). He also hasn't surmounted every obstacle inherent in tackling a relatively low-budget non-Equity mounting like this one, though only the first-act show-stopper "N.Y.C.", painfully reconfigured in a ghost-town Manhattan for (huh?) Warbucks's servants, really suffers. Certain moments (that Christmas scene again, and, bizarrely, the overture) are paced as though on permanent fast-forward. And I'd love to encourage Charnin to roll back the changes to the book and score that, across much of the last couple of decades, have further angled the show toward impatient children and away from the adult-minded, even mature, family entertainment it used to be.

That's the eternal paradox of Annie. It exists at the most tangled of crossroads, with propulsive poverty anthems (you've heard of "Tomorrow," I trust?) next to paeans to the upper-crust life, low comedy next to high feeling, and trenchant political commentary woven in among the fuzzy scenes with children and dogs. (Macy and Sunny, both trained by the inestimable William Berloni, alternate as Sandy; whichever I saw was a consummate professional.) There's a lot going on, and it can't be easy to capture it all.

But the jokes are good (I always get a kick out of Warbucks waving off his first million or billion with "that was a lot of money in those days") and the score is superb (forget about extracting "Maybe," "It's the Hard-Knock Life," "Little Girls," "Easy Street," or pretty much any number from your head), and, in the end, Annie doesn't need much more than that. Provided it's done well enough, that is, which it is here. Annie may never again have quite the complex allure that made it famous, but this production makes a cozy case for it, like the Kings Theatre, as a fusion of elements that can amuse and affect as long as love and care are provided in all the right places.

Through December 20
Kings Theatre, 1027 Flatbush Ave, Brooklyn, accessible from the B, Q, 2, and 5 trains.
Tickets and current performance schedule: Ticketmaster

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