Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set in 1933 during the Great Depression, the plot of the comic-strip-inspired musical follows the spunky, red-headed orphan Annie. She befriends a scruffy dog and loves her fellow orphan girls but never loses hope that her parents will one day finally turn up to take her away from the dreary orphanage overseen by the horrible Miss Hannigan. Meanwhile, billionaire Oliver Warbucks is looking for an orphan to spend Christmas at his mansion. Fate intervenes and Annie finds herself tugging at the heartstrings of Warbucks, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and most likely every audience member as well.
The infectious score, with Charles Strouse's upbeat music and Charnin's fun lyrics, features the break-out tunes "Tomorrow," "It's the Hard-Knock Life," "Easy Street," and "Little Girls." The book by Thomas Meehan is nicely constructed with enough character growth, especially on the part of Warbucks, to instill the show with a sense of love and warmth.
The national touring cast may be playing parts inspired by two-dimensional cartoon characters, but for the most part they are all delivering well-rounded portrayals full of comedy and emotion. Heidi Gray is confident, upbeat, and always optimistic as Annie, with a clear, strong, and winning singing voice that excels on her many songs. As Warbucks, Gilgamesh Taggett is a giant teddy bear with a sweet, soulful singing voice. Taggett instills Warbucks with a perfectly rigid, capitalistic heart that Annie begins to soften as soon as the two meet. Lynn Andrews is comically delicious as the conniving Miss Hannigan with pipes that deliver a bright, booming belt and agile legs that kick up a storm during "Easy Street." Chloe Tiso is sweet and touching as Warbucks' secretary Grace, with Garrett Deagon, Lucy Werner, and Jeffrey B. Duncan rounding out the main cast in fine performances. The ensemble is solid and the six young girls who play the orphans delivery realistic portrayals that are winning.
Having directed this show numerous times before, including the original Broadway run, Martin Charnin clearly knows what is required to infuse the proceedings with emotionally packed moments and to play up the comical scenes equally. My only quibble, and I'm not sure if this is because this tour has been on the road for a while now and the cast may be somewhat tired of their parts, is that there are a few moments where the actors appear to be slightly unattached and simply waiting to deliver their next lines. They appear to have been overly drilled into delivering their lines a specific way, or just being somewhat bored with the show. Fortunately, these moments don't detract from the overall enjoyment of this production.
Choreographer Liza Gennaro (daughter of the original Broadway choreographer Peter Gennaro) provides plenty of upbeat numbers but also fun moments for the orphans. While most of the dances are fairly simple moves they play up the playful nature of the characters. Beowulf Boritt's scenic designs include a fairly large set for the orphanage that breaks into pieces and revolves into both a shanty town as well as the Warbucks estate and some beautifully detailed New York City backdrops that add depth to the scenes. Ken Billington's lighting creates lovely images, while the soiled orphan costume designs from Suzy Benzinger are nice counterpoints to the spotless and colorful clothing in the Warbucks mansion. Peter Hylenski's sound design is crisp and clear and Kelly Ann Lambert's music direction achieves warm tones from the cast and a full sound from the small orchestra. While Annie's dog Sandy is only in a few short scenes, animal trainer William Berloni clearly is gifted in finding a dog (in this case, two that alternate performances) that not only look incredibly loving but hit their marks with ease.
Annie is a joyful musical of hope and heart and I'm happy to say that the national tour production foregoes any hint of cutesiness or overly sugary moments. Instilled with a realness and with talented leads and seven gifted young actresses who deliver rough, gruff, and natural portrayals of the orphans, the end result is refreshing. This production will surely delight audiences of all ages and maybe even soften the hearts of those who have come to hate the musical just like Annie softens Daddy Warbucks.
Annie plays through May 8th, 2016, at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit anniethemusical.com.
Book by Thomas Meehan