The last time I saw a full production of Annie on stage, I was only 8 and Andrea McArdle was playing the titular redhead on the Great White Way. And it was my first-ever Broadway show and the musical that made me fall in love with theater to begin with.
Now, I realize that’s a tough memory for any musical to live up to, but the current national tour of Annie, playing at the National Theatre, was absolutely thrilling and evoked just as much fondness and passion from me as the original. Plus, with my 10-year-old daughter in tow, new memories were created that will keep this production in the memory banks for a long time.
Staged by Martin Charnin, Annie‘s lyricist who also directed its 1977 Broadway opening, and based on the beloved “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip, Annie tells the story of an 11-year-old girl, living in a run down orphanage in 1933, whose optimism allows her to believe she will one day see her parents again (they left her on the orphanage’s doorstep when she was a baby) and that each tomorrow will be a better day. It’s a theme that resonates throughout the musical and one that makes the story so inspiring.
Annie is eventually chosen to spend Christmas week with bald-headed billionaire Oliver Warbucks and she quickly melts the heart of the stern businessman and his staff. The story then takes a deceitful turn when con artists devise a plan to separate Annie and Warbucks forever.
As Annie, newcomer Heidi Gray is a rare find. The youngster handles comedy and drama with aplomb, and her timing was pitch perfect. While she doesn’t have McArdle’s strong belt, Gray’s Annie finds a bit more emotion in her songs, bringing out more of the tenderness of “Maybe” and the joy of “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow.” Her plucky spirit brings out smile after smile.
As Oliver Warbucks, Gilgamesh Taggett’s gruff exterior is quickly melted away and he makes the billionaire even lovable. He commands the stage and exudes power when needed, but also shows a vulnerability that’s important for the character. In one scene, Taggett’s Warbucks is trying to do business while Annie mopes because he’s not coming to the movies, and you can almost see his heart grow three sizes á la the Grinch. The bond between the two is delightful—especially in the sweet duet, “I Don’t Need Anything But You.”
As the gin-soaked Miss Hannigan, the despicable head of the orphanage, Lynn Andrews has one scene stealing moment after another. The stage vet is a hoot complaining about her job, life and the pesky orphans, and is hilarious in her rendition of “Little Girls.” Whether pining over Oliver Warbucks, teasing the children or just sneaking a sip of her “medicine,” Andrews brings plenty of laughter to the role.
Of course, the story of Annie relies a great deal on her time at the orphanage and the young actresses playing her fellow orphans (Annabelle Wachtel, Molly Rose Meredith, Casey Watkins, Emily Moreland, Bridget Carly Marsh and Sage Bentley) are full of spunk and have some powerful voices. “It’s a Hard Knock Life” is one of the most memorable songs in the production as the girls sing and dance their way through the unfortunate story of their existence under Miss Hannigan’s rule.
Other standouts include the lovely Chloe Tiso as Warbucks’ assistant Grace, who helps bridge the bond between her boss and Annie; Jeffrey B. Duncan as a charismatic President Roosevelt who delights in Annie’s optimism; and the duo of Garrett Deagon and Lucy Werner as the scheming Rooster and Lily, who join Andrews in a show-stopping “Easy Street.”
Tony winning scenic designer Beowulf Boritt’s sets are striking. From the drab compound of the little room where the orphans lived, worked and played; to the opulent mansion of Oliver Warbucks; to the distinguished room in the White House—each perfectly sets the scene and the action flowed seamlessly without much notice of the changing scenery on stage.
Annie has remained timeless for almost four decades thanks to Charles Strouse’s brilliant score, a feel-good story by Meehan and the belief that the sun really will come out tomorrow. The current tour is the perfect musical to introduce your kids to theater as it’s filled with plenty of joy and laughter. And just like it did for me almost 40 years ago, the memories will last a lifetime.
Run Time: 2 hours 15 minutes including intermission.
Through March 20 at the National Theatre
Annie by Thomas Meehan. Directed by Martin Charnin. Featuring Heidi Gray as Annie, Gilgamesh Taggett as Oliver Warbucks, Chloe Tiso as Grace, Lynn Andrews as Miss Hannigan, Garrett Deagon as Rooster, Lucy Werner as Lily, and Jeffrey B. Duncan as FDR. Also featuring Annabelle Wachtel, Molly Rose Meredith, Casey Watkins, Emily Moreland, Bridget Carly Marsh and Sage Bentley. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Suzy Benzinger. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Blonde). Musical supervision and additional orchestrations by Keith Levenson.