Let's not waste time rehashing the plot. Chances are good that if you're reading these words, you're already familiar with Annie, the 1977 Broadway smash hit inspired by "Little Orphan Annie," a comic strip that first appeared in the Depression-era 1930s. And you already know that 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 meet. So what you really want to know is this: Does the current Muny production (which is playing an extended run through next Tuesday) offer enough pleasures to warrant leaving the comforts of air conditioning and sitting in 96-degree heat? The answer is a resounding yes.
For starters, it really wasn't all that hot on opening night. A steady breeze wafted through the amphitheater; Forest Park was a surprisingly pleasant place to be. Then too, it doesn't hurt that for the second consecutive week, the Muny production is sharp and snappy. As they did last week with 42nd Street, once again the Muny got the big things right. As directed by Daniel Goldstein, the show is tight; it moves at a quick pace. The original Peter Gennaro choreography, reconstructed here by Antoinette DiPietropolo, remains brash and jazzy. But with this Annie, the big things mostly involve the casting of three key roles.
Too often Miss Hannigan, the orphanage proprietress, is wildly overplayed as an in-your-face scenery chewer. But this week happy days are here again, because Beth Leavel is a cunning clown who operates with command and control. Leavel wrings lunacy out of a role with the same dispatch that others might wring the neck of a Christmas Day turkey. She serves up the nuttiest — and the most efficient — Miss Hannigan I've seen since Dorothy Loudon, who created the role.
At the outset anyway, billionaire Oliver Warbucks is supposed to be brusque. Conrad John Schuck goes through the motions of meanness, but niceness emanates from his very being. He's about as gruff as an overstuffed panda. Who wouldn't want to be adopted by him? Schuck has been playing Warbucks for so many years now, he actually seems to have stepped out of a comic-strip square. It's almost as if the lumpy contours of his bald pate have morphed into the shape of a cartoon drawing. When he talks, you can almost imagine his words in all capital letters — and in boxes.
Then there is Abigail Isom in the title role. Watch her carefully, especially in the opening scene at the orphanage when she's mothering six other orphans. An unexpected maturity and serene poise emanate from Isom. These are not qualities we associate with Annie, yet when seen here they seem jarringly right. In a feel-good cartoon musical, Isom feels real. It doesn't usually play out like this, yet her natural approach makes Annie more engaging and sympathetic than usual.
Yet she's not so natural that she doesn't also know what she's doing. Late in the evening Annie makes a grand entrance down the grand staircase of Warbucks Mansion. Isom descends the eleven stairs like a pro: She maintains constant eye contact with the audience rather than looking down at the stairs. Many adult stars are unable to handle stairs, but this young novice pulls it off with seeming ease.
Throughout most of the evening Isom plays the role with her own natural red hair. Eventually, of course, she must make that aforementioned grand entrance sporting Annie's trademark permanent. Not only does the wig look like something that should be fumigated (and then given a proper burial), but it insidiously smothers the very life from Isom's ebullient personality. Maybe that's as it must be. Surely the show needs to end with Annie looking like the iconic figure we all know. Yet ironically, up until that mandatory moment, this Annie was fresher, more spontaneous — and indeed even cooler — than any 32-year-old musical has a right to be.
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