I think I probably fairly represent the two poles of opinion on the all too familiar musical, "Annie". On the one hand, I'm as susceptible as anyone to those lovable tykes and Annie's boundless optimism in the face of calamities as great as the Depression, and as personal as her abandoning parents. On the other, I've sworn that the only way I would again endure the strident insipidity of "Tomorrow" was if I had an AK-47 under my coat, to supply the ultimate critical commentary. But, with my 11 year old daughter beside me to effectively disarm any such negative fantasy, I trouped out to Issaquah to see their handsomely mounted, occasionally impressive, often limp production.
Under the direction of Steve Tompkins, what I saw was a vastly uneven performance, with some roles (in particular, Miss Hannigan) that were nothing short of brilliant, and great elements of the story regrettably featureless and ineffective.
Of course, the first question always has to be, "how was Annie?". Two children alternate in the role (Meaghan Foy and Caitlin Kinnunen), and the night I saw it Meagan Foy was the indomitable redhead. She is very talented, with an impressive, full voice, some rough phrasing, and plenty of technical acting skill to get through the show. This role, however, calls for something more. Annie has to have the kind of radiance that literally lights and heats her dark, cold world, and everyone who encounters her (except of course, Miss Hannigan, Rooster and Lily). It's a huge demand, and accounts for the number of star careers the role has launched, while at the same time it demands great support from the rest of the ensemble. We have to see not only who they are, but why they are the way that they are, and how she changes everything. Here, director Tompkins falls short.
It's only in the second act, when Annie goes to FDR's (Art Anderson) White House and teaches a hopelessly gray cabinet to stand up and sing that her powers of inspiration and redemption really become convincing. It doesn't happen in the orphanage, before she sets out into the cold, cruel world. The orphans are actually quite good. "Hard Luck Life", that essential, story-setting opening number, was energetic and fun, but it doesn't really feel like Annie is the reason. Likewise, the "Hooverville" scene, with the dispossessed who live beneath the 59th Street Bridge, was so bland that rather than emphasizing the gap between the very rich and the very poor, it just felt irrelevant and distracting. Only in the relationship between Annie and Oliver Warbucks was the real magic of her personality convincing, and that was largely because of the excellent performance of Hugh Hastings as Warbucks. This show wants to present a portrait of a little girl with vitality and vivacity so great that it is an equal match for a collapsed economy or a broken spirit. That takes a combination of talent and theatrical balance, and while I think Ms. Foy had enough talent, the direction failed to provide her with the dramatic balance.
Then there was Miss Hannigan. Bobbi Kotula, an actress with a terrific musical theatre voice and awesome comic technique. Her performance here was all but perfect, on an entirely different level than anything else in the show, as nuanced and fully realized as any performance I've seen in Seattle this season. Her rendering of "Little Girls" was a masterpiece. Not only do we see the true loathing she has for these little wretches who provide her living, but we also feel the real longing for someone to love in her life. Constantly walking that fine line between comedic exaggeration and dramatic believability, she is hilarious and affecting, impressive for the perfection of her technique, and genuinely compelling in her emotional authenticity. This is not to say that the performance removed itself from the ensemble or the production, simply that it towered over everything else. One performer can make an entire evening worth it.
But it can't save a production, not single-handedly. Nor could the beautiful scenic design by Bill Forrester, the first-rate costumes by Karen Ledger, or the general quality of the children's ensemble. In the end, what this production delivers is simply another production of "Annie", with the usual appeals and too many of the usual pitfalls. It was enjoyable, and I even got through "Tomorrow" without biting my lip until it bled, but I spent far too much time seeing how it could have been so much better, how the curious blend of political and social desperation with a little girl's deepest desire for family might have been truly magical and transformative. Not here. Not this time.
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