Still reeling from the unanticipated results of this weeks’ Presidential election, I was looking desperately for an escape. For one week only Chicagoland, that relief is provided by a plucky red-headed orphan girl and her dog, Sandy. Of course I am talking about the ever optimistic, touring Broadway musical Annie, once again returning to Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theater. Set during The Great Depression, this troupe helped me snap out of my own personal funk, albeit for about 2 hours and 15 minutes. This optimistic orphan and company has lost none of thier charms, thanks in large part to book writer Thomas Meehan, music from Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin. This talented trio each received Tony Awards in 1977 for their work. Based on the 1924 comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” by Harold Gray, then revitalized in musical format on Broadway in 1977, Annie live had been charming generations of families around the world for the last 39 years. There is something life-affirming about watching a little girl transform wealthy business tycoon Oliver Warbucks, melting his cold, money making heart, and waxing nostalgic about the benefits of Tomorrow.
Making her national tour debut as Annie is Tori Bates. This spunky scene stealer shared her capable vocal prowess when belting notes, center stage. She is partnered with an adorable rag tag team of fellow orphans,including Bunny Baldwin as the often cartwheeling Molly, Katie Wylie plays Duffy, Amanda Wylie featured as Tessie, Jacqueline Galvano portraying Judy, Ava Slater as Kate and Amanda Swickle rounds out the bunch as Pepper. Each girl delightfully melancholy while singing It’s a Hard Knock Life all the while living under the thumb of bawdy Battle Axe, Miss Hannigan, played with robust gusto by Erin Fish. The girls may be little, but they are gifted with competent voices and impressive act two choreography from Liza Gennaro showing their considerable promise. Leaping Lizards! These tots climbed ladders, ran in circles, and nailed their collective hitch kicks.
As the story continued, lovely Grace Farrell (the delightful Casey Prins) selected an orphan to join Oliver Warbucks, Annie touring institution Gilgamesh Taggett, at his palatial estate for two weeks around the winter holidays. After a scene stealing rendition of “Little Girls,” Miss Hannigan and her con-artist brother “Rooster” (Michael Santora) and his doll, Lily St. Regis (Mallory King) concoct a plan to appear as Annie’s biological parents, collect a $50,000 stipend in the process, and then dump off the plucky carrot top while on their way to Easy Street. Of course the winners win, the losers lose and we are all reminded that I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here.
With a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, this show might be a little long for the littlest children who attended in droves with their parents. A few seated near me became restless, climbing both their chairs and their parents. “Mommy is this almost over” asked the little blonde sitting directly in front of me. I knew we had about 4 more songs to go, so for her this was going to be a long night. To distract, Suzy Benzinger’s costumes were period accurate, and eye-catching and Beowulf Boritt’s sets were grand in scale, but not ostentatious. Of special note, William Berloni’s animal training of both Sunny and Macy who alternate playing Annie’s canine companion, Sandy. Hitting all the right cues and inspiring audible “awes” and applause from the audience every time the dog graced the stage.
Annie the musical was my initial introduction to live musical theater and the performing arts when I was a child. While it never reaches the dazzling visual heights of The Lion King or Phantom, the emotional pathos of Wicked or the plain fun of Mamma Mia and Kinky Boots, it doesn’t’ have to. Annie pre-dates all of those productions by at least a decade. For me, this was a pleasant distraction from a world that quite literally feels like the sky is falling. My sincerest hope is that Annie will continue to whet the appetites of young children, fueling their curiosity and enthusiasm for live theater while simultaneously healing the psyche of a collection of wounded adults. Certainly the Grammy and Tony Award-winning score will enchant, with an impressive song list including Tomorrow, N.Y.C and It’s a Hard Knock Life which has since been woven into the collective musical tapestry of the great American sound book. This tour of “Annie” is the first of about a dozen shows opening in the next few weeks to capitalize on the influx of Windy City holiday tourists seeking solid family entertainment. Remember all, no matter what the world may throw at you, You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.
Annie is currently playing at the Cadillac Palace Theater through November 13, 2016