When the orphans jumped up, stomped on their beds and sang “It’s the Hard-Knock Life,” it was easy to believe that Annie, now in its 30th anniversary, really is the timeless American musical.
It continued to seem that way as the cheeky orphan Annie (Madison Kerth), with signature red hair, escapes her orphanage and the domineering, little-girl-hating Miss Hannigan (a brilliant Lynn Andrews) by way of a laundry cart and ventures into the real post-Great Depression world of 1933. There she meets her wandering stray of a companion and counterpart, a dog she names Sandy.
The modern-day relevance of the show is especially uncanny when Annie stumbles into a Hooverville, and the slum-dwellers there break out into the mockingly satiric “We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover.” Substitute in the name George Bush, and you’ll see.
It’s when the police turn Annie back into the hands of Miss Hannigan and a whole lot of providence leads the 11-year-old girl standing bright-eyed in a billionaire’s Fifth Avenue mansion where she’ll spend Christmas, crooning in awe, “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” that the show begins to feel distastefully dated.
When nasty Miss Hannigan wrinkles her nose and bellows, “It ain’t fair!” one can’t help but agree. The other orphans are unnaturally complacent about the whole affair, happily left out on the sidelines. The poor folks from Hooverville never appear again (probably starved to death). And who else are we to sympathize with, a billionaire named Warbucks (David Barton)?
Director and lyricist Martin Charnin (director of the original 1977 Broadway version), in true spirit of the good old-fashioned musical, attempts to make humor out of (and ends up trivializing) all things remotely serious, never letting sentiment linger long enough to have its warm and fuzzy effect. It’s an admirable approach, especially to a heartfelt musical like this, but one almost wishes not all the sparks of human feeling were crushed, collected and refined into monetary terms.
As Annie sits waiting to be collected by her “real” parents (after a string of methods Warbucks installs with his power to find Annie’s folks ““ including a TV commercial, President Roosevelt and the FBI), she finally breaks the silence with a groan, “A pig farm!” where her parents supposedly live. Annie is not sad to leave Warbucks, but his big bucks and the big life of luxury attached to them.
The deliberately gawky, over-the-top choreography by Liza Gennaro however, is delightful. And for such an ostensibly big-budget show, the set by Ming Cho Lee is modest and surprisingly refreshing in its old-fashioned poster-board style, with large painted backdrops and little furniture. Along with the stiff and very curt hugs the characters give each other, these stylistic conventions give a comic, cartoonish look to the show.
So maybe we’re not meant to believe that “Annie” (and its perfect happy ending) could happen. And this Annie-first-timer is taking it far too seriously.
But after more than 30 years of “Tomorrow,” it feels like this make-believe world is starting to lag behind the times.
““ Ruiling Erica Zhang
E-mail Zhang at email@example.com.