The “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip by Harold Gray may have originated in 1924, but the story of the spunky redhead orphan has had many lives on stage and screen from the original 1977 Broadway hit to two flop movie adaptations in 1982 and 2014 (the made-for-TV 1999 film still remains the most superior screen version). But even with Annie Live! On NBC essentially trying to be a filmed version of the stage shows with some of the film’s songs, there truly is nothing as magical as the original stage production. In this national tour directed by Jenn Thompson, the original actress for Pepper in the Broadway production, Annie returns to the road. “Annie,” the smash Broadway musical is playing now at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts until October 22 with tickets available here.
As the curtain of the Manhattan Bridge rises, we are introduced to the Girls’ Annex of the New York Municipal Orphanage. Set in the freezing middle of December, an orphan named Molly (Jade Smith) is whimpering, crying out for her mother to the chagrin of the other children. As Pepper (Avery Hope) antagonizes Molly, we are introduced to Annie (Rainier “Rainey” Treviño) who comforts Molly with her own introduction in the ballad “Maybe.” As she pines over the lives of her imagined parents and attempts to make a break for the streets of New York, she is thwarted by the matron of the orphanage, the surly Miss Hannigan (Stefanie Londino). About twenty minutes into the show and we already get “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” While yes, it is devoid of any Jay-Z raps, the “Hard Knock Life” sequence is an absolute earworm with some Stomp-esque percussion from mops and buckets. While many schools and local theatre troupes put on productions of “Annie” yearly, this rendition features an absolute Broadway-caliber cast of pre-teen performers.
The titular character of the show, Annie, is played by the absolute stand-out, Rainier Treviño. With no short order of having to sing, dance and command massive emotions through acting for nearly two hours, Treviño brings the house down in the optimistic anthem “Tomorrow,” not to be outshined by her canine scene partner Sandy (Georgie). Arguably, you’ve got the show’s 11’o o’clock number right before 8:30.
Angrily lamenting about the “Little Girls” of the orphanage and pining for a man of her own, Miss Hannigan’s villain song is played with absolute liquid confidence by Stefanie Londino. In her portrayal of the maligned matron, Londino’s comedic chops take center-stage with a hilarious performance I can only describe as “Carol Burnett on a Bender.” While the tempo takes a backseat, Londino’s delivery in a drunken talk-singa á la Carol Kane as Lillian Kaushtupper is pure gold. The villains of the show are definitely given some of the best songs of the show with “Easy Street.” Hannigan’s dastardly brother Rooster, played oh so menacingly by Kaleb Jenkins and his dame, Lily St. Regis, performed beautifully shrill and camp in all her mid-Atlantic ditziness by Samantha Stevens.
Representing the lonely industrialist, Oliver Warbucks (Christopher Swan), his secretary Grace Farrell (Julia Nicole Hunter) inquires Hannigan about having one of her orphans stay at his mansion for Christmas. Hannigan begrudgingly offers up Annie, who is taken into Warbucks’ resplendent Fifth Avenue manor. With set design by Wilson Chin, the grandeur of the mansion is fully realized in this production. Giant windows beset with golden art deco adornments against the more drab, impoverished Hooverville captures Depression-era Manhattan incredibly. Chin frames the show under the steel girders of the Empire State and within the limitations of a moving tour set utilizes the massive cast to move set pieces on and off stage.
In developing the book of the show, Thomas Meehan’s script works incredibly tight with Charles Strouse’s unforgettable melodies and Martin Charnin’s charming lyrics. Combining 1920s sounds of jazz, vaudeville and even some contemporary sounding ballads, the score is as memorable Even with the spectacle there isn’t much fluff and each moment leads beautifully into the next. As the show was written in response to the negative outlook of Nixon-era Vietnam, the framing of Oliver Warbucks as a benevolent industrialist seeking meaning in life through an heir is definitely of the time and something that the 2014 film version fails at trying to update. Instead, Christopher Swan plays Warbucks with all the poise and baritone that the character commands from the 1977 stage show. His assistant Grace is sung in a lilting soprano with some pop flourishes by Julia Nicole Hunter giving the score a wondrous musicality.
“Annie” has been a show that’s made stars out of unknowns like Sarah Jessica Parker or Sadie Sink, but it works best when delivered by a hungry young cast eager to give the performance of a lifetime 8 shows a week. Whether it’s the massive spectacle of Times Square illuminating performers like Savannah Fisher as the Star to Be, proving there are no small roles with her massive belt, to the orphans imitating the Boylan sisters in a massively choreographed sequence by Patricia Wilcox, there is no shortage of spectacle or heart in this show. “Annie” is a heartwarming, timeless story that has all the spectacle of classic Broadway with a cast that reflects its modern audiences. “Annie” is playing now at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts until October 22 with tickets available here.