‘Annie’ at Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center

Forget about “Tomorrow.” In Baltimore the sun came out the minute the latest road tour of Annie unpacked its bags.

From its elaborate sets by Beowulf Boritt, Suzy Benzinger’s costumes, and Ken Billington’s lighting, and its enormous performing talents, this production is everything a U.S. national, tour should be. Audiences at the refurbished Hippodrome Theatre between now and February 1st will think they stepped off Eutaw Street and into the glittering heart of Broadway.

The cast of 'Annie.' Photo by Joan Marcus.
The cast of ‘Annie.’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

Speaking of heart: Is there a more poignant opening in any musical than the song “Maybe” from this 1977 blockbuster? You don’t even have to have kids of your own to tear up hearing a little red-haired urchin singing about the parents who abandoned her as an infant:

“Bet’cha they’re good — why shouldn’t they be?

Their one mistake was giving up me.”

But let not your heart be troubled: A pot of golden happiness awaits at the end of this tuneful rainbow from veteran composer Charles Strouse. Little orphan Annie will find her sugar “Daddy” Warbucks, reunite a Depression-addled country, and inspire an energized President Roosevelt to deliver a “new deal for Christmas.”

Annie may find happiness elsewhere, but audiences won’t be so eager to leave the delightful company of the little girls at Miss Hannigan’s orphanage. That pint-sized chorus line hits a homer with “It’s the Hard-Knock Life,” nailing all the regimented kicks and twirls while delivering Martin Charnin’s witty lyrics through adoringly toothy grins.

All the young actresses here are winners, with Lilly Mae Stewart as Molly melting most of the hearts as the moppets’ mascot. All of the others, ranging in age from 9 to 11, get oohs and awws of their own in that extended radio spot parody, “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.”

If you’re wondering how those young girls could have become such troopers, it might be the company they’re keeping. Lynn Andrews as the long-suffering Miss Hannigan handles the show’s dual duties of being both villain and comic relief with great stabs of burlesque humor. Andrews never comes off overly cruel or self-pitying, and makes her big solo spot, “Little Girls,” uniquely her own.

Then again, this show’s little orphans have a truly first-rate performing model in young Issie Swickle, who is sensational as Annie. A belter with a distinctive and musical quality to her voice, Miss Swickle never misses a beat nor a punch line, and tugs at our heartstrings even when sharing the stage with another scene-stealer, like that handsome mutt that plays her dog Sandy (Macy or Sunny, depending on which performance you attend).

Also in the top-tier of the show’s pros is Gilgamesh Taggett as Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks. With his magnetic grin and confident stature, he not only looks the part of the single-minded financier, Taggett has probably the most splendid Warbucks singing voice I’ve come across in four decades of Annie-going. He fields all the character’s interpersonal cluelessness with good humor, and comes off pitch-perfect in his center stage solos, especially “Something Was Missing” and “N.Y.C.”

No staging of Annie can be successful without the plot’s team of connivers, who  attempt to parlay the bond between Warbucks and Annie into a home for themselves on “Easy Street.”

 Issie Swickle and Sandy. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Issie Swickle and Sandy. Photo by Joan Marcus.

As Rooster, Garrett Deagon is so limber, lanky and mean that when he cocks his knees and elbows at a comical angle he looks more like a lost pterodactyl than your everyday barnyard fowl. Lucy Werner is more restrained  but just as perfectly entertaining as Lily, Rooster’s partner in crime.

Filling out the all-star roster of pros here are Ashley Edler as Warbuck’s personal secretary, the winsome Grace Farrell; Todd Fenstermaker as the officious Drake; Cameron Mitchell Bell as radio crooner Bert Healey; and those three “lovely Boylan Sisters,” Lily Emilia Smith, Meghan Seaman, and Hannah Slabaugh.

Choreographer Liza Gennaro does wonders with the orphanage numbers and the “Easy Street” prance, but she shines when giving new life to the big ensemble pieces,  like the Hooverville number and especially that eye-popping trip to “N.Y.C.”

This production was directed by the show’s co-creator, Martin Charnin, and he clearly embraced this chance to show what he has learned about it from audiences over the years. This may stand as the best Annie to come our way in a whole host of “Tomorrows,” so grab a ticket while you can.

Running Time: Two hours annd 40 minutes, with one intermission

Annie plays through February 1, 2015 at Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center – 12 N. Eutaw Street – in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be ordered at the box occife by calling (800) 982-ARTS or online.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Sure made me feel good – particularly knowing how discerning a Baltimore critic can be:

    APPLAUSE opened in Baltimore, and the critical advice give then, was instrumental in
    making it a hit. (Lauren Bacall helped.)

    Kindest regards,

    Charles Strouse

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