As you probably already know, Annie is based on characters and story lines from the old-time comic strip "Little Orphan Annie," and the musical retains the gee-whiz cartoonish style of its source. Annie doesn't try to reinvent the Broadway musical but is pretty much a retro homage to it. Its creators all have Broadway pedigrees. Composer Charles Strouse wrote the tunes for Applause and Bye Bye Birdie. Three-time Tony-winning playwright Thomas Meehan penned Hairspray, The Producers, and the upcoming Bombay Dreams, which is scheduled to hit the Broadway stage in April. The story, set at Christmastime during the Great Depression, follows little Annie's attempts to run away from her dreary all-girls orphanage to find her long-lost parents. Instead, she encounters billionaire Oliver Warbucks, who takes a shine to her and wants to help her quest. But trouble shows up, in the persons of the child-hating, scheming orphanage director, Miss Hannigan, and her lowlife hustler brother, Rooster. They plan to pose Rooster and his gum-snapping tootsie as Annie's parents to collect a reward that Warbucks has posted.
Annie's story line has its charm, and so does its tuneful, rather simple score. But the clear attraction in this production is its splendid performances, which are not only well-sung but particularly well-acted. John Herrera, a Tony nominee from New York (The Mystery of Edwin Drood), makes a fine Warbucks, offering more emotional range and texture than Albert Finney did in the movie version. Like the male leads in several recent Playhouse shows, including The King & I and The Sound of Music, Warbucks is an isolated, powerful man who comes to terms with his emotional identity through his interactions with children. In this, Herrera is exceptionally fine, articulating Warbucks' progress from harsh coldness to sensitivity, and his rich, romantic singing voice turns the act two ballad "Something Was Missing," usually a time-chewing redundancy of a number, into a moment of self-discovery. In the title role, Karina Fernandez is little short of mind-boggling. Consider this -- the first number in the show is not only Annie's first solo, "Maybe," but she must follow it in the same scene with a second, the show-stopper "Tomorrow." In her professional debut, Fernandez, a middle schooler from South Miami, calmly and coolly knocks down both numbers with an assurance and vocal technique that's above reproach.
But that's not all, folks. To this, add Margot Moreland's hilarious, gleeful villainy as the scheming Miss Hannigan, a smashing performance that in my opinion defines the role, outshining even the original Hannigans, Carol Burnett and Kathy Bates. Moreland's booze-swilling, seething Hannigan lurches around the stage in a seedy bathrobe that looks like a recycled bedspread, a deliciously nasty turn. Yet like Herrera, Moreland's characterization is grounded in an emotional reality. Hannigan is bad, but her desperation, her frustration, and her sorrow make her more than a caricature.
The rave list goes on -- Terrell Hardcastle is a delight as Rooster, a smooth-moving, slick-talking sharpie whose manner belies a desperate insecurity. Terry M. Cain, who in seasons past has perfected the art of mugging to felonious levels, has reined in his instincts of late, and here, as he did in Floyd Collins and Return to the Forbidden Planet, he delivers excellent support in the important role of FDR. Same goes for Christopher Kent's smarmy radio-show host, Irene Adjan as Rooster's squeaky-voiced squeeze, and Janet Dacal, whose turn as a "star to be" in the first-act number "NYC" is brief but memorable. Add to this array a talented, plucky, hard-working chorus of orphan girls and what results is just the right dose of sugar and spice.
The company is given excellent support from director David Arisco and his usual production team. Arisco's staging is conservative and precise, efficient and fluid. Barbara Flaten's choreography, a mélange of classic Broadway styles, adds energy and assurance and some nice splashes of humor. Both make good use of M.P. Amico's elaborate sets, a series of scrims and arches in bright comic-book colors offset with darker cityscapes. Mary Lynne Izzo once again serves up eye-catching, stylish costumes, and Ginny Adams lights it all with rich, warm hues and shadings that turn the stage pictures into holiday ornaments.
Annie made its debut in the late 1970s during a troubled era in America, which was still hung over from the effects of Vietnam and Watergate and caught up in a string of economic woes, a staggering economy, and rampant inflation. Annie's creators played on a nostalgia for the New Deal era: In one second-act scene (cut from the movie version), Annie and Warbucks, a diehard Republican, visit his long-time foe, FDR, and his Cabinet in Washington. FDR and company despair over all the bad news from the Depression. Warbucks and FDR try to work together to come up with some solutions. It's only when Annie reprises "Tomorrow" that the pols cheer up and suddenly dream up the New Deal's public projects programs. All of this is tongue-in-cheek, of course, but the show's relentless optimism may have presaged a trend: Ronald Reagan won the presidency with his upbeat "Morning in America" theme, defeating President Jimmy Carter, who was forever tarred by his comment about American malaise. The country has changed a great deal since those days, but Annie continues to offer some resonance. War, terrorism, and economic woes still plague the country, and the Republican majority has been rather successful in its quest to overhaul many federal programs. It's just fantasy, of course, but Annie's cheerful dose of optimism, civility, and cooperation could be on many holiday wish lists this season.