The real treat was onstage.
Annie, the musical, stopped in Baltimore for three performances. The touring company has an insane schedule now through spring, sometimes performing only one showing a city before moving on and setting up for a show the next night in a town hundreds of miles distant.
But, Friday night’s performance, as announced from the stage, was the 40th anniversary of the musical’s Broadway debut produced by Mike Nichols at the Alvin (now Neil Simon) Theater on 52n Street. The show’s book is by Thomas Meehan, with Music by Charles Strouse and Lyrics by Martin Charnin. It was choreographed by Liza Gennaro.
In the audience was the show’s lyricist and original and current director Martin Charnin – the subject of many selfies in the lobby during intermission – and animal trainer William Berloni.
The musical is loosely based on the cartoon strip, Little Orphan Annie, born August 5, 1924 in the New York Daily News, which ran it until its demise June 13, 2010. The strip inspired two movies in 1932 and 1938, while the musical spawned three movies – in 1982, 1999, and 2014.
The production at the Lyric was flawless, with a large cast that tugged every heartstring within reach. Though there were no missteps, the cast was warm, enthusiastic and empathetic, not robotic.
Keith Levenson directed and performed with the 8-person orchestra that sounded five times larger as it played tucked from sight under the stage. The robust sound design was by Peter Hylenski.
Before the show began, a large screen bearing the cartoon image of the curly-haired Annie and her dog Sandy concealed the set. Designed by Beowulf Boritt and with lighting design by Ken Billington, it was a masterpiece of mood, believability, setting, speed, and efficiency – and, lord knows, it has to pack well as it transits on the tour.
As the overture fades, the first scene was set in a Dickensian orphanage on NYC’s Lower East Side in 1933, deep into the Depression. From several bunk beds slammed into a filthy room, spring seven amazingly talented little girls, including Annie (the golden voiced Tori Bates). All seven are orphans (Amanda Swickle, Bunny Baldwin, Katie Wylie, Jacqueline Galvano, Amanda Wylie – yes Katie’s sister, and Ava Slater.).
Several girls are picking on Annie, an 11-year-old, for believing her parents will come for her someday. Annie sings “Maybe.”
She decides, instead, to go looking for them and is intercepted by a snarling Miss Hannigan (Erin Fish – another amazing voice), the orphanage’s alcoholic overseer. All the girls are punished for Annie’s attempted escape, and, while scrubbing the floors, complain about their troubles in “It’s the Hard Knock Life.”
Miss Hannigan has her own nasty point of view as she staggers about the stage singing “Little Girls.” Stuck in a lifestyle she can’t escape, she is manipulative, coercive and cruel.
Annie finally makes her getaway in a laundry bag as Miss Hannigan attempts to flirt with the laundry delivery man.
In seconds, the scene changes to an outdoor street line with old row houses in lower Manhattan and a stunning image of the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.
Annie encounters Sandy for the first time and protects him from two baton wielding Irish-American cops. She and Sandy are welcomed by a group of homeless grownups cooking dinner over a fire that lost their jobs at the onset of the Depression and have nowhere to go.
The actors in this scene return again and again during the show as different characters via rapid garment changes in spot-on period costuming by Suzy Benzinger.
Annie is returned to the orphanage, sans Sandy, and, moments later Grace Farrell (Casey Prins) arrives with news to change Annie’s life.
Grace’s boss, the wealthy billionaire (Wow! A NYC billionaire with a heart …) Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks (Gilgamesh Taggett) wanttos invite an orphan to stay at his Fifth Avenue mansion during the Christmas holidays. The rich man is a name-dropper – Presidential candidate Al Smith and President FDR are on his speed dial, as is Bernard Baruch, J Edgar Hoover and, even, Elliott Ness.
Annie’s welcomed by Warbucks and his staff as they sing “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” followed by a stroll in Central Park where they encounter Star To Be (Katie Davis) – who can hold a note for a seeming eternity. She had the audience on its feet.
After Annie and Grace depart, Miss Hannigan’s sleazy brother Rooster Hannigan (Michael Santora), just released from Sing-Sing, and his girl Lily (Mallory King) show up. The trio dream of life on “Easy Street.”
Without going further into the now-classic plot, I’ll simply say, even for a jaded theater-goer, this is a terrific show with a dynamic, moving cast aided by great music, beautiful costuming and an over-the-top set. Especially astonishing are the seven young girls in the cast who were professional yet telegraphed the joy of being a kid.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Annie plays two more performances today, April 22, 2017, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at The Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric -140 West Mount Royal Avenue, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (410) 900-1150, or purchase them online.