Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Taken from the comic strip "Little Orphan Annie" by Harold Gray, this 1977 Tony Award winning musical tells the story of the spunky Annie, who longs to be reunited with her parents after being dropped off at an orphanage as a baby. Picked to spend the Christmas season with billionaire Oliver Warbucks, Annie spreads her message of hope to everyone she meets (including President Roosevelt). Despite the deceitful plans of Miss Hannigan, who runs the orphanage, Annie finally finds happiness and a home.
Annie is blessed with a quick-paced and efficient book by Thomas Meehan. Though it contains a number of sweet and cute moments, the plot has sufficient character development, humor, heart and conflict. The script also provides an informative historical and social perspective on the times (1933 Depression).
The score by Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics) is one of the best of the 1970s and features such well-known songs as "It's the Hard Knock Life," "Maybe," "Easy Street," and, of course, "Tomorrow." The songs are highly melodic, witty, memorable, and a wonderful fit for the story and characters.
This non-Equity national tour boasts a talented cast, headlined by Ellie Pulsifer as Annie. Ms. Pulsifer has the necessary gumption and grit to propel the story forward and is also extremely sympathetic (she really turns on the tears late in Act 2 to great effect). She's also a steady singer, doing justice to several of the show's most well-known numbers. As Oliver Warbucks, Christopher Swan displays a perfect balance between money-focused detachment and fatherly warmth, along with strong vocals and a commanding stage presence. Julia Nicole Hunter brings layers to the role of Grace, a character that often comes across as one-note. She nails the subtle humor of the role, conveys elegance and depth, and sings fabulously. As the villainous Miss Hannigan, Stefanie Londino is likewise vocally impressive and provides great comedic skills (including a timely ad-lib related to a wayward piece of the set during one scene at the performance I attended). Mark Woodard (FDR), understudy Andrew Scoggin (Rooster), and Krista Curry (Lily) do well in supporting roles. The full ensemble of adult and child performers, which has fewer members than some other professional productions, displays versatility and triple-threat skills.
Director Jenn Thompson emphasizes both the humorous and sentimental moments of the show well. Her blocking is effective and the character interactions and portrayals feel genuine. Interestingly, the scene transitions almost always consist of the actors moving the set pieces on and off stage. It's rare that set changes for a national tour aren't automated to some degree in this day and age, or performed by unseen backstage crew, but the transitions generally ran smoothly on opening night. The choreography by Patricia Wilcox is active and fun, with "It's the Hard Knock Life" and "Easy Street" as dance highlights. Elaine Davidson leads a great sounding 10-piece orchestra.
Despite having set pieces that actors move on and off, the design of the show is quite handsome and doesn't come across at all as cheap looking. The scenic design by Wilson Chin includes proscenium arches, a show curtain, and several backdrops which all feature New York City bridge motifs. The set pieces are attractive and well suited to the setting and period, including the orphanage and Warbucks' mansion. The lighting by Philip Rosenberg is varied and effectively highlights who is singing. Alejo Vietti's costumes are aptly drab and dull for the orphans and homeless, and vibrant and styled for the more well-to-do characters in the show.
One of the great things about seeing a show like Annie on tour after a lengthy break is witnessing the many children in the audience experiencing their first, big "Broadway" musical. This tour certainly showcases talented performers, and is an entertaining and fun presentation of this likable Broadway staple.
Annie runs through February 12, 2023, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, call 513-621-2787 or visit www.cincinnatiarts.org. For more information on the tour, visit annietour.com.