REVIEW: Annie old, not tired

Annie GigCity EdmontonYou might be thinking that the Broadway Across Canada production of Annie currently at the Jubilee Auditorium might be a little old and tired. You might think that in Edmonton, near the end of its long run of road shows, the cast might be phoning it in.

Well, it doesn’t take more than 20 seconds of the perky, upbeat overture wafting up from the pit from the solid 10-piece orchestra to let you know how wrong that thought is. Annie may be old, but it is not tired. The venerable 40-year-old vehicle is as fresh as a New York minute and as polished up to a bright shine as if minted yesterday. It’s only here for two days; it opened Saturday night and plays two shows on Sunday – and it is not being produced on the cheap. The sets are not Lloyd-Webber ornate but they are eye-filling and do the job. Lighting, sound and production ranks with the best the company has brought us.

The latest Broadway incarnation of Annie in 2012 was considerably darkened (by a new director) and rejected by audiences. This production has returned to its original Broadway director Martin Charnin and his sunshine-filled, family-oriented version of the story first seen in American comic books.

In the 1930’s “the comics” had an entirely different meaning than they do today, since superheroes took over. They started out as small, rectangular daily strips that featured household names like L’il Abner, Flash Gordon and Mandrake the Magician. Everyone read them.

The most popular strip of the ’30s was cartoonist Harold Gray’s tale of a spunky, blank-eyed orphan named Annie, and her dog, Sandy. Annie was a sunny innocent who wandered in a dark world filled with corruption, communists and greed. Her protector and mentor was the richest man in America, “Daddy Warbucks.”

By my count there have been some five movies about Annie – two based on the hugely successful 1977 Broadway musical.

Annie GigCity EdmontonA good production of Annie wears well, filled as it is with appealing urchins, memorable characters, colourful cartoonish sets, easy-to-access emotions, and a feast of hummable, ear wormy tunes you just can’t get out of your mind – like It’s a Hard Knock Life, You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile, Maybe and the inevitable, enduring Tomorrow.

The story, while timeless, is set in the Great Depression, where even the most sunlit of songs addressees the privation of the era. Just listen to the lyrics of Tomorrow, which tells listeners that “The sun will come out tomorrow!” – but tomorrow is “always a day away.” It turns out that this optimistic urchin was personally responsible for the policies of the American government of the time.

Annie herself is played by a pint-sized, 11-year-old ball of talent and energy named Heidi Gray, who has a clarion, hall-filling voice. She dominates the production – singing, dancing and doing comedy with the poise of a performer far older than her years. Daddy Warbucks (Todd Fenstermaker) is comically nonplussed by his sudden devotion to this chirpy little girl. Lynn Andrews, who has the endless comic invention of an old time vaudevillian, is quite hilarious as the perpetually potted Miss Hannigan, the dragon who tyrannizes the impossibly cute orphans. The rest of the cast is superb.

Charles Strouse’s music seems to be composed of showstopper after showstopper. Despite its repeated productions, Annie’s charm is impervious. The “live” show is better than both of the musical films and, despite the cynicism of our times, Annie (The Musical) endures in the heart and mind.

The show runs two shows Sunday, May 1 only at 2 pm and 7:30 pm at the Jubilee Auditorium.