'Annie' Thrives, Even In A Non-Equity Tour With Wrinkled Scenery

'Annie' Thrives, Even In A Non-Equity Tour With Wrinkled Scenery

Boy, this one was a struggle to write! Tuesday night's opening performance of the weeklong stand of the now and forever "Tomorrow" musical, "Annie," still on a national tour that dates back to 2005, was enough to make this reviewer take a very deep breath. On the one hand were the direction, choreography and design concepts of this production, all of which are by the same hands, or by the artistic heirs, of those geniuses who devised the original 1977 multiple Tony Award-winning Broadway production. On the other hand were the probably hardworking, possibly financially struggling adult cast members, a missing chorus boy or two, a reduced orchestra of seven in the enormous orchestra pit of the Auditorium Theatre of Chicago's Roosevelt University, and several Act Two backdrops which look like someone really should use a steamer to get the wrinkles out of poor ol' Daddy Warbucks' mansion walls. 

And yet, days later, with the melodies of "Maybe," "It's A Hard-Knock Life," "Little Girls," "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here," "N.Y.C." "You're Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile," "Something Was Missing" and a half dozen other Charles Strouse tunes running incessantly through my head, and remembering the smiles of the faces of the little girls in the audience around me, my heart is warmed in knowing that the core of this comic strip backstory "creation myth" musical, the love that billionaire Warbucks and the little orphan Annie find for each other in the darkest days of the Great Depression, is not only fully touching and humanly true in this revival, but the whole thing is amazingly timely in this age of the Great Recession (especially in the need for Republicans and Democrats to come together once again and give this country a Deal through which it can thrive). 

Did I mention that Franklin Roosevelt and his cabinet are characters here, as are some "Hooverville" residents, wacky 1930s radio show performers, a houseful of perky servants and a dog named Sandy (played with absolute, on-cue perfection by Mikey)? And don't forget those seven adorable child actors, girls well-schooled in their roles but absolutely spot-on with their jokes, their bucket choreography and their energetic, nigh-on-to-piercing singing voices! 

Annie herself is played by Madison Kerth, who seems like a sweet, talented girl and who almost to a "T" embodies Annie's spunkiness, optimism and common sense street smarts. Oliver Warbucks is David Barton, who manages to create the role not as the blustery, out-of-touch gruff guy you might imagine, but as the way a young girl might wish such a man to be, a little silly and unsure, endearing and bumbly, and clearly in need of a daughter to romance him. And as Grace Farrell, the substitute mother of this nontraditional family, Traci Bair has an air of, well, of grace, class and smarts of her own. Does Warbucks warm up to her before the curtain falls? 

The villains of the piece come across less well, but who wants to root for the villains all the time? Lynn Andrews, a little young for the world weary Aggie Hannigan, has the voice of Dorothy Loudon, the body of Kathy Bates and the makeup of Carol Burnett, evoking all three of her most prominent predecessors in the role. Zander Meisner is oddly sexy as Rooster, though more effective in disguise as "Ralph Mudge" than as Miss Hannigan's con-artist brother. And Cheryl Hoffmann hits all the requisite squeals as Lily St. Regis, but doesn't land as outlandish as she should. The trio's "Easy Street" number seems rushed. 

Among the other cast members, most of the ensemble creates a series of well-etched characterizations, though Jillian Wallach doesn't come close to matching the Star To Be of Laurie Beechman (as if anyone could). Jeffrey B. Duncan's F.D.R. looks good (though is he a mite befuddled?), Kelly Goyette is great-looking as Mrs. Pugh and Secretary of Labor Perkins, and the Boylan Sisters of Katie Reid, Liz Bachman and Margaret-Ellen Jeffries sing great, look great, and chew that gum with gusto. 

This is not an exact facsimile of the show from 35 years ago, the one that gave the world Sarah Jessica Parker (Annie number three) and gave John Schuck several decades of steady work as Warbucks. But it certainly evokes it, and for that we should be grateful. The tour's Executive Producer is Kary Walker, who served in that same role up at the Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre during the 1980s and 90s--he certainly knows the family theater market in this region. 

There should probably always be a tour of "Annie" somewhere nearby, in time if not in space, for youngsters to go and enjoy and for us older folks to remember. In musical theater history this is a transitional work, still with a lot of scene changes and a big-seeming cast, but with a scaled down orchestra even then and a song that (though everybody knows "Tomorrow") never made the pop charts. It has not been "fixed" yet for new century audiences, but I suppose that time will come. Until then, wrinkled scenery and all, the lump still forms in the throat, and the ending is Christmas-bright. Celebrate "Annie," while you can.  

"Annie" plays only through January 24, 2010 at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Parkway, in Chicago. Tickets range from $20 to $75. Call the Broadway In Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.

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From This Author Paul W. Thompson

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