"Thank heaven," Maurice Chevalier crooned, "for little girls." Audiences at this week's Muny production of Annie can thank heaven that a little girl named Natalie Ann Bram has been cast in the title role. In an evening that is remarkable for its polish and sheer professionalism, no one on the Muny stage is more professional than Bram. Her voice is strong, and she enacts everybody's favorite red-headed waif with humor and heart. The youngster dominates the evening with charming aplomb and seeming ease.
Seeing as how Annie is one of the most successful musicals in recent decades, surely there's no need to remind readers that the 1977 Broadway hit was inspired by Little Orphan Annie, a comic strip that first appeared in the Depression 1930s. In the strip, Annie has come to stay with ultra-rich Daddy Warbucks; in the stage musical, we learn how these two unlikely allies first met.
Annie is an evening about kids and dogs and Christmas, and cynics can make as much fun of it as they like. But it's also an evening about craft and structure and the kind of theater know-how that builds musicals to last. Under the watchful eyes of director Pamela Hunt and choreographer Liza Gennaro, the Muny mounting is true to the spirit and the letter of the original. The show remains fresh and ebullient.
The cast is almost uniformly outstanding. Walter Charles is a dominant yet sensitive presence as billionaire Oliver Warbucks. As his long-suffering secretary Grace, Donna English lives up to her name; her graceful presence enhances the show's most thankless role. As Miss Hannigan, the outrageous and villainous orphanage proprietress, Ruth Williamson takes advantage of Annie's cartoon roots to deliver an exaggerated performance that even the folks in the free seats will have no trouble following.
So what's not to like about the production? Very little. If we wanted to be churlish, we could carp that once again the Muny scenic design looks cheesy and cheap -- not qualities to aspire to when you're designing the home of a billionaire. One doesn't know whether to blame the designer or the scene painters for such lame work. In Act Two, that crude White House portrait of George Washington is neither caricature nor cartoon; it's simply an embarrassment. Speaking of the White House, we could also point out that much of the Act Two humor falls on the presidential shoulders of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His lines aren't especially funny; it's all in the delivery. But Anthony Cummings' portrayal of FDR misses the mark -- widely.
But then, the Muny misses the mark by selling Annie as this summer's annual children's show. Annie is no more a children's show -- at least as St. Louis audiences have come to know the phrase -- than is The Music Man or Oliver!
Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella: These are children's shows, in large measure because they reach out to young viewers. Annie is a captivating entertainment, but it's filled with sly political jokes, satirical barbs, allusions to historical figures and even the occasional swear word. It's not for toddlers -- and on opening night a lot of the younger kids got very bored very fast.
Because it's masquerading as this summer's children's opus, 80-plus kids have been dumped into the orphanage. Fortunately these platoons of orphans are well contained and don't hurt the evening's flow. There's nothing of the freak-show nature here, as there was when herds of kids were crammed into recent productions of Godspell and The Fantasticks -- neither of which, by the way, was identified as a children's offering.
But why be churlish about a musical whose underlying theme is the innate need for optimism or about a production that is as cleanly and smoothly mounted as this one? In the song that has become a theater anthem, Annie reminds us (and reminds us and reminds us) that "the sun'll come out tomorrow." Thanks to the radiant young Natalie Ann Bram and her co-stars, the sun will be shining in Forest Park every night for the remainder of this week.