BWW Review: Endearing ANNIE Graces the Memphis Orpheum

It's the time of year to reflect on the past and enjoy familiar stories that warm our hearts. 'Tis the season for ANNIE! That spunky waif has been part of our American culture for more than 130 years. She was first penned into existence by poet James Whitcomb Riley in 1885. His poem, "Little Orphant Annie" was inspired by Mary Alice "Allie" Smith, an orphaned child who came to live in the Riley home.

In 1924, that popular poem became the inspiration for Little Orphan Annie, a daily American newspaper comic strip created by Harold Gray. The Horatio Alger style saga of that fearless, ginger-haired foundling continued to capture the hearts and imaginations of Americans, inspiring a radio show in 1930, film adaptations by RKO in 1932 and Paramount in 1938. The Broadway musical ANNIE opened in 1977 with book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin. All three authors received 1977 Tony Awards® for their work.

Needless to say, this was far from my introduction to the character, or the story. (When my daughters were small, they performed in a dinner theatre production of the show, and during that stint as stage mom, I came down with a mild case of "ANNIE Fatigue.")

I mention that because I walked into the Orpheum with less than wild anticipation for what I was about to see, yet I was absolutely captivated and delighted by this fresh production of that stage staple.

Directed by original lyricist and director Martin Charnin for the 19th time, the production features a 25-member company. I noticed that there were some new lyrics to NYC, and a bit of fresh choreography, but nothing radical or revolutionary was done to this interpretation of the show. We travel, as always to the Great Depression era to see a world where poverty and opulence are juxtaposed in sharp relief.

I believe the enchantment and vitality all boiled down to the fact that Casting Director, Joy Dewing made some great choices.

In the title role of Annie, 11 year-old Tori Bates makes her national debut. (She is the first biracial actress in the role), though ANNIE has a legacy of non-traditional casting dating back to Nell Carter as Miss Hannigan in 1997. Bates isn't just a charismatic child who can sing, dance. She's a real actress. The strength and subtleties in her performance make it obvious that "cutesy" isn't the commodity she banks on. Her Annie is a believable combination of childlike innocence and hard knocks toughness. It's impossible not to only to root for her, but also to believe in her.

Actress Bunny Baldwin, as Molly is a tiny girl whose voice and talent are gigantic. Her heart-warming vulnerability, and smile-inducing presence are pure magic.

Erin Fish as Miss Hannigan is a tall, imposing presence with precise comic timing and chops. She plays this harsh character not as a cartoon villain, but as troubled alcoholic. Instead of broad-brush strokes and easy choices, she delivers an engaging level of texture and pathos.

Gilgamesh Taggett is far and away the best Daddy Warbucks I have ever seen. His characterization of this iconic captain of industry is that of a deeply emotional man inside a businessman's veneer. That veneer that slips and cracks at just the right moments to reveal his heart. Those dramatic choices make it clear that his rapport with Annie is rooted in the fact that he, too, was once an orphan consigned to a hardscrabble life.

Another stellar performance is that of Casey Prins as Warbucks' statuesque assistant Grace Farrell. Prins exudes the refined, beatific presence of 1930's movie queens in every little way.

Michael Santora is frighteningly funny as Rooster Hannigan the stonehearted con man with rocks in his head, and Mallory King as Lily plays the perfect tawdry accomplice.

Those strong leads, complemented by equally strong chorus, swings and supporting players make for a memorable combination.

Last, but certainly not least, is Sandy played by terrier mix rescue, Macy. This wonder dog nailed the role with precision and heart thanks to the skill and dedication of acclaimed Animal Trainer,William Berloni. (Given the quality of this dog's performance, I was astonished to learn that Berloni, himself was not backstage . . . and in fact, not in Memphis at all on opening night.)

When the show was over, I strolled out of the Orpheum into the brisk winter air wondering how many members of the audience would find themselves singing ANNIE songs during the drive home. I knew I would be. After the recent election and all that has been at the forefront of my mind, that upbeat escape was a little slice of heaven.

If you are looking for a great holiday tradition, or the perfect introduction to theatre for any child ready to see their first large scale stage production, I would highly recommend this show.

Orpheum Theatre

Through December 18th, 2016

203 S. Main Street, Memphis TN 38103

TICKETS: $25-$125

BOX OFFICE: 901.525.3000

All Photos © Joan Marcus

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From This Author Caroline Sposto