BWW Review: Leapin' Lizards, The 5th Ave's ANNIE is a Heartfelt Joyride!
You may say, Dear Readers, that it's impossible to have a bad production of the Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse, and Martin Charnin classic "Annie". Throw some precocious kids on stage, belt out those recognizable tunes and you're gold. Well, I beg to differ as I've seen my share of "Annie" productions that missed the point, or the heart or maybe just didn't quite have the kids to pull it off well. (You know what they say, never work with kids or animals and this show has BOTH!) Well the current production at the 5th Avenue not only has the perfect tone for this boisterously fun old time musical, but they know exactly where the heart is in the show and in the audience and which buttons to push on both. Not to mention those precocious kids all seem to be consummate professionals with killer voices. So much so I'm suspecting they were actually just short adults. Maybe?
If you're unfamiliar with the show, where have you been? Are you new? "Annie" is the gold standard of shows for any aspiring little girl performer and is done by most theaters and their dog at least once. But let me lay it out for you. Annie (alternately played by Visesia Fakatoufifita and Faith Young but by Fakatoufifita on the night I saw) is a tough little red headed 11-year-old orphan in New York in 1933 living in an orphanage with the horrible Miss Hannigan (Cynthia Jones). But when Grace Farrell (Jessica Skerritt) comes to the orphanage to take Annie away to live with the billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Timothy McCuen Piggee) over Christmas, her life is changed forever.
And it's jam packed with all those recognizable tunes such as "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile", "Hard Knock Life", "Little Girls", and of course "Tomorrow". Just try to get that earworm out of your head when leaving the theater. The thing is, with all the precious kids and earwormy songs the show at its core is about hope. The hope of a little girl to find her parents but on a larger scale the hope a country had to get themselves out of the Great Depression. And director Billie Wildrick has ensured that the message of hope comes through and is never overshadowed by anyone trying too hard to "put on a show". In fact, the whole ensemble, filled with oodles of talent, just looks to be having a blast and it shows and infects the audience giving us hope for a wonderful evening. Add into that some killer choreography from Kelli Foster Warder who manages to nail the style of the era perfectly, awesome music direction from Caryl Fantel, a fantastic set from Beowulf Boritt, and fabulous costumes from Suzy Benzinger and Leon Dobkowski and the production is an all-around winner.
But it's the cast that must sell it and sell it they do. Piggee makes for the perfect blustering Warbucks showing tons of vulnerability and heart as the show goes on. Skerritt is wonderful as the no-nonsense Grace keeping the Warbucks camp going. Jones has the unenviable task of being compared to the ultimate Miss Hannigan, Carol Burnett (at least in my mind) and she nailed it. Not a copy of any other performance I've seen but hilarious and fantastic and one of the best, show stopping "Little Girls" ever. Dane Stokinger and Cheyenne Casebier as Miss Hannigan's sleazy brother Rooster and his girlfriend Lily St. Regis both brought in some deliciously devilish baddies and the trio killed it on "Easy Street". And kudos to the entire ensemble especially the cadre of orphans whose vocals and characters were so crisp and clear and a total delight.
But the show is called "Annie" so we should talk about Annie. As I said, it was Visesia Fakatoufifita the night I saw, and this little girl is a star in the making. A powerhouse of a voice with tons of character but never over the top, she manages to carry the show with seeming ease. And with a few hysterical moments of spot on comic timing, I definitely see the potential in her to go quite far.
So, I guess you could say I had a good time. I laughed, I cried, I didn't want to crush any overly cloying and adorable children underneath my boot heel. All in all, a successful evening. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give the 5th Avenue's production of "Annie" a rousing YAY+. It's just so nice to see a show that's willing to embrace the style of the older, big musicals, while still retaining its meaning.