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Review: Glossing over Distress, “Annie” Serves Up a Massive Dose of Optimism, which has its Charms

By Halle Shoaf | Arts Angle Vantage Reporter

duPont Manual High School, Class of 2023

In the 1982 movie adaptation of the “Annie,” the slightly scratchy sound work, the muffled taps of dancers’ shoes on the hardwood floors, outside sets filmed around city alleyways with wrought-iron staircases similar to those in the colorful “West Side Story” and other details enamored me to this musical. That includes Carol Burnett’s Miss Hannigan and Tim Curry’s Rooster (Hannigan’s brother). That was nine years ago when I was 8.

Ellie Pulsifer as Annie and Addison as Sandy in the 2022 company of "Annie." Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade. Courtesy PNC Broadway in Louisville.

These flamboyant and fantastic performances in the film and other qualities set my expectations high when I sat down on opening night to see the touring production of this 1977 musical from PNC Broadway in Louisville, which ran from Feb. 14 to 19 at The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.

The original 1977 “Annie” was a smashing success on Broadway with a book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse, and lyrics by Martin Charnin. The musical won seven Tony Awards, including Best Original Score and Best Book.

In the movie, characters remain memorable by the relationships they form in scenes in between numbers. On stage, there is a sheer physical presence, a bravado, that cannot be communicated through the screen. This well-known musical, here directed by Jenn Thompson, features the same popular music and the familiar story.

Wilson Chin’s scenic design and Ajelo Vetti’s costumes emphasize the plot with color blocking rather than ornate fabrics and textures, allowing the audience to focus on their favorite parts. As ensemble cast members weave in and out of formation, details of the scenic design and costuming help transform the stage. The butlers’ circa-1930s emerald-green coattails swish from side to side with their every step, and musical cues evoke Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Ellie Pulsifer and Christopher Swan in the 2022 company of "Annie." Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade. Courtesy PNC Broadway in Louisville.

Ellie Pulsifer’s spunky portrayal of Annie is big, but not enough to fill the towering windows in the palatial mansion Chin designed for Mr. Warbucks’ home. Does Warbucks have these gold-framed glass panels as a glimpse of opportunity, or to function as invisible dividers? In “Annie,” social criticism is more often found in what’s unsaid.

Characters here are more one-dimensional in the revived musical than in the movie. The so-called villains of this story are far more complex than their first impressions. Each reveals easily recognizable- and human- traits. The hubris of Rooster (Nick Bernardi), the desperation and bitterness of Hannigan (Stephanie Londino), are ubiquitous flaws that contrast with the facade of Oliver Warbucks (Christopher Swan) — a supposed billionaire-with-a-conscience. Warbucks admits in the second act that his obsession with success crushed others on his ascent to the top.

Krista Curry, Nick Bernardi and Stefanie Londino in the National Tour of "Annie."

Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade. Courtesy PNC Broadway in Louisville.

The flirtatious Miss Hannigan (Stephanie Londino) appears to be ditzy and tactless, her bottle of alcohol always on hand. While Hannigan is laughable, other characters show a palatable distaste for her. There is more at play here, and it’s no laughing matter. Her penance for being a free woman of the time is to forever put the needs of others before her own. Hannigan receives harsh punishment for being an accomplice to her brother’s crimes. This raises the question of gender roles as Rooster (Bernardi) is weasley but rendered charismatic. She is seen as desperate for attention, yet it is her brother who is promiscuous. In “Little Girls,” she laments that despite her lack of love life, she’s “the mother of the year.” Her subsequent indignation justifies her less-than-mediocre caretaking abilities. Without the economic or social opportunity to grow, she is stunted like her orphans, confined to isolation.

Of course, this musical remains successful because the show itself is what you take from it. If you find yourself wishing for optimism, Kaley Were’s voice fits seamlessly in the role of Grace Farell, Oliver Warbucks’ secretary. Her costumes also fit that bill. Audience members gasped when she walked out in a floor-length satin gown. (She was the role’s understudy.)

In this production, Annie’s happy-go-lucky attitude and her willingness to go along with the plan make her exceptionally appealing. There were many glistening eyes in Robert S. Whitney Hall during the reprise of “Tomorrow.” Annie and Warbucks meet President FDR (Mark Woodard) and his cabinet in D.C. to find solutions for the country during the Great Depression. Annie interrupts the conversation, urging optimism. The result: the “New Deal” is conceived and the men and women join her in song, concluding with Annie standing on a table in front of a giant American flag projected across the stage. Annie in her smart, teal outfit raises a fist of hope, resembling the Statue of Liberty. And the ever-cheerful “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile,” immeasurably poignant in our new world of masks and social isolation, resonates true to its iconic form, if somewhat rushed.

Left: Ellie Pulsifer (center) as Annie and Company in the National Tour of "Annie. Right: The National Touring Company of "Annie." Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade. Courtesy PNC Broadway in Louisville.

Throughout the years, “Annie” has warmed the hearts of many, its message of resiliency remaining applicable to changing times. The same is true today. Despite the multitude of complex issues the world faces, Annie’s character teaches us that perhaps life is not only bracing ourselves for what comes next. During their curtain call, cast members sang the chorus of “Tomorrow,” and as the audience stood, they joined in on the song. Instead of viewing optimism as naivete, perhaps we can learn to see it simply as a different perspective.

Halle Shoaf is a duPont Manual High senior whose writing has earned regional recognition through the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Her play, “Little Birds,” addressing LGBTQ+ perspectives in pre-WWII Germany, was selected by regional professionals and performed in the Youth Performing Arts School’s “New Works Festival.” She participated in the Arts Angle Vantage workshops covering “Hamilton” and “Shakespeare’s R&J.”


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