'Annie' demonstrates its durability at the Hippodrome

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
"Annie" gets it mostly right at the Hippodrome.

There's nothing like a little orphan to combat a Depression.

Hollywood pushed that concept hard with Shirley Temple movies. Broadway seconded the notion with "Annie," the much-loved, much-traveled musical that is back in Baltimore, flashing enough smiles to stimulate job growth, deficit reduction and bipartisanship across the land.

OK, maybe not. But the show does provide a welcome lift. Even those who, like me, tend to flinch involuntarily at the thought of hearing "Tomorrow" belted out again by a perky 11-year-old girl may find themselves won over.

It helps that there's an authoritative stamp on the staging from show business veteran Martin Charnin, "Annie's" lyricist and director of the original 1977 Broadway production.

He was not a fan of the 2012 revival of the show in New York, directed by James Lapine. That version "took the heart, the humor and the truth out of what we set out to do," Charnin told the Chicago Tribune. So he decided to direct his own revival, this one specifically put together for touring.

This is a nonunion show, a choice attributed to cost-consciousness. Actors' Equity Association, which represents professional actors on Broadway and beyond, targeted "Annie" in an online campaign some months back in an attempt to get theatergoers to pay more attention to a touring show's union status.

For all of that, it's hard to view the "Annie" now bounding about the Hippodrome as a deficient product. It certainly looks good. Fittingly for such an old-fashioned show based on an old-fashioned comic strip, the scenic design (by Beowulf Boritt) has a comfy quality, right down to the vivid painted drops of vintage New York. The costumes (by Suzy Benzinger) are likewise nicely evocative.

And the cast, with one exception, hits the spot, expertly guided by Charnin to assure polished, snappy pacing.

That exception? Issie Swickle's Annie. She delivers dialogue and songs confidently, and handles stage business like a pro. But at the risk of being pilloried, I have to admit that I would have welcomed more charm, more distinctive nuance.

That said, the show percolates winningly, since this determined Annie enjoys so much colorful support as she goes about the business of escaping from an orphanage just before Christmas 1933; finds herself under the wing of a gruff Republican billionaire named Oliver Warbucks; helps Franklin Delano Roosevelt lift the nation out of its funk; and, oh yes, befriends an abandoned dog named Sandy.

Although the "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip was not known for embracing the New Deal, the musical, with a clever book by Thomas Meehan, does so with gusto. The scene in a shantytown, with the homeless sardonically warbling "We'd like to thank you, Herbert Hoover," still has bite.

Lots of other historical names get dropped in this fanciful whirl, including members of FDR's administration (there's something irresistible about the idea of Interior Secretary Harold Ickes breaking into song). This staging tosses in some visual allusions, too. Isn't that Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes among the portraits of eminent Republicans adorning Warbucks' home?

Kids may miss a lot of this stuff (they'll find plenty of other things to enjoy), but adults will be grateful, even for some of the dated humor. A sample: "Harpo Marx called." "What did he want?" "He didn't say."

This, obviously, is not what keeps drawing audiences to "Annie." It's the eventful plot, which pulls all the right strings, with the help of cute kids, a cuter canine and some terrific villains. And it's the score, which boasts a good deal of catchy music by Charles Strouse well-matched to Charnin's lyrics; the best songs recall the days of classic Broadway and Tin Pan Alley.

No one in this touring cast sells that plot or that music more winningly than Lynn Andrews as orphanage boss Miss Hannigan.

With an Alpine bosom, ever-animated eyes and Ethel Merman vocal pipes, Andrews heats up the stage so much that she gives evil a good name. She rings every ounce of expressive flavor out of her snarky anthem "Little Girls," and even makes a meal out of imitating a Jell-O jingle on the radio.

Gilgamesh Taggett is a natural at conveying both Warbucks' bluster and sensitivity. His vocalism, especially in "Something Was Missing," is likewise stylish. The lanky Garrett Deagon oozes slime deliciously as Miss Hannigan's conniving brother, Rooster. Deagon, Andrews and Lucy Werner (as Rooster's girlfriend) sing and dance the heck out of "Easy Street."

Another standout is Cameron Mitchell Bell, who, among other assignments, does a spot-on job as a radio star. The ensemble of Annie's orphan pals is certainly a dynamic bunch, capable of gutsy singing and dancing (keep an eye on tiny Lilly Mae Stewart as Molly). A 13-piece orchestra provides a sturdy, if overamplified, foundation throughout.

And then there's Sandy. Two rescue dogs, trained by William Berloni, alternate in the role. The one I saw could not have been a more adorable trouper.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Annie" runs through Feb. 1 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $25 to $110. Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.

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