This had been Dania’s suggestion.
As far back as she could remember, Gwen had always been the person scheduling performances and telling the others what shows they would go see. But during this jaunt to Seattle, Dania had looked up the local arts scene, and specifically requested a trip to see Annie at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
It was obvious why. Dania had grown up with Annie, one of the few musical soundtracks she had listen to as a child, since it was family-friendly. As Gwen had railed against the absences of any legitimate stakes in the plot, and naturally had choice words to say about the most recent film adaptation, Dania had held fast to her adoration for the tale of the plucky orphan and her sugar daddy (“God, the word ‘Daddy’ just isn’t the same nowadays, is it?” Dania had cooed just moments before the musical began).
Eleanor was in the same boat – in that she liked the musical without hesitation. Far from growing up with it, Eleanor shared all of Gwen’s gripes about the structure of the show, and loved it still, despite them.
“We all need our holiday cheese every now and then,” Eleanor had explained, prior to the performance. “Besides, I could use someone to tell me that the world can still get better. This was written during Watergate, right?”
Post-Watergate, Gwen thought to herself. But Eleanor wasn’t wrong – the mid-1970s was as rough a time to pitch a musical about keeping your head up as it was now. Willing to bite the bullet for her friends, Gwen agreed to spend an hour or two in the company of the shiny redhead and her shrill bunkmates.
The performance ran almost exactly as Gwen had predicted. She considered whether or not a play could be written out of predictive audience reactions to the play: clap when Annie sings “Maybe,” gasp when Sandy first appears, laugh when Hannigan first insults Grace, fall eerily silent as FDR and Warbucks name drop each member of the 1933 Presidential Cabinet.
The only moment that gave Gwen notable respite from her slender bitterness was the entrance of Annie herself during the eleven o’clock number, “I Don’t Need Anything But You.” The script cued up the entrance perfectly: “Have Cecile put Annie into one of her new dresses,” Warbucks commanded. “And have Annette do…something with her hair.” For the expectant patrons of 1977 – and the observant 2018 audience who had taken a glance at the poster – the indication of what was to come couldn’t be sketched any cleaner.
And yet, as Faith Young made her entrance down a perilous flight of stairs, hair curled into the copyrighted coiffure and white collar cinched atop the red dress, the audience made…no sound at all.
Gwen stayed her hand, as the muscles were already prepared to toss themselves up in righteous indication. Her eyes darted around the darkened auditorium, looking in vain for the one hesitant viewer clapping out of habit, but found nothing in the crowd. They merely looked on, rapt, and Annie did the same, gawking at Warbucks’ twenty-foot Christmas tree.
“Annie, I’m the luckiest man in the world!” boomed Timothy McCuen Piggee, as proud a Warbucks as any.
“Any I’m the luckiest kid!” joined Young, rushing downstage to join her Daddy as the music segued into the next number.
– – – – –
“That was nice,” Eleanor said. “Nothing world-changing, but solidly in the ‘nice’ column.”
“You gotta love Annie,” Dania chimed. She tossed a look towards a silent Gwen, before adding, “I know that you don’t actually have to, but isn’t it just a better world if we do?”
“Perhaps,” grinned Eleanor. “I thought they did a good job finding the heart in it. Caring about the characters.”
“The woman who played Grace was really good,” Dania said. “I thought she was funny without being over the top.”
“Jessica Skerritt,” Eleanor recalled. “Yes, she seems like a natural fit. I’d actually be more surprised if she made it through a career in musical theatre without playing Grace Farrell once.”
“I love the part where she is the one suggesting that Warbucks take Annie to the movies,” said Dania, “like Warbucks has no idea what he’s doing.”
“It’s a nice sense of balance when Annie and Warbucks are together, trying to bond. Especially since Warbucks is such an unstoppable force in this one.”
“He is…” Gwen began, choosing her words very selectively.
“…Very loud,” came the careful landing.
“Lots of bombast in him here,” Eleanor said. “Which works, as a defense against seeming like he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
“The challenge with any Warbucks is making that shift from beleaguered workhorse to attempted family man within – what’s the run time, twelve minutes?” Gwen asked. “From first entrance, to cradling Annie at the end of ‘NYC?'”
“I thought he managed that fine,” Eleanor said. “The reactions from the staff help to build his aura of power quickly. The ensemble are really working overtime in this show.”
“I love a lot of the NYC number,” Dania said. “I think it was longer than usual. Did they add music?”
“It’s the 5th, it’s entirely possible.” Eleanor recalled the menagerie of musical theater shout-outs that populated the 1930s New York setting: On The Town, Newsies, Mame.
“What did you think of the Annie?” Gwen asked.
“I thought she did a fine job,” Eleanor said. “A very strong personality that gave her bite without making me question why she doesn’t self-actualize more.”
“Good voice, for sure,” Dania added. “Especially in ‘Maybe’ at the beginning.”
“What about ‘Tomorrow?'”
“I was distracted by the dog, I don’t remember.”
“She was certainly a belter,” Gwen said. “But if there’s any role where that’s required, it’s Annie. A good sense of comedic timing, as well. I had questions about motivation for why she does what she does, but that’s getting into the issues with the script.”
“Well, it’s a difficult role,” Eleanor ceded. “Not in performance, but in theory. She’s central to the play, but isn’t the protagonist of the story.”
“Annie…isn’t the protagonist?” Dania asked. “Of Annie?”
“I’ve mentioned this before, when we watched Annie 2014,” Eleanor recalled. “The protagonist is Warbucks. He’s the one that goes through an arc and changes emotionally during the story. Annie has to shift her wants and needs around, but she’s personality-wise the same person at the beginning as at the end.”
“She shouldn’t be,” Gwen said. “In a perfect production, she’d have an arc too.”
“I mean, sure,” Eleanor said. “Although I was thinking during this version, Gwen, about your hate for the show and it’s script…”
“Hate is far too strong a word for simply thinking it’s lacking in meaty stakes,” Gwen grumbled.
“I am willing to concede, having now watched it again,” Eleanor said, “and in a very high-quality production, that Warbucks has a much easier time claiming to be the protagonist than Annie does. It’s not just a performance thing, part of Annie’s stasis problem is written into the script.”
“Okay, thank you.”
Dania rolled her eyes, before catching Eleanor’s glance.
“And?” she intoned.
With a shrug, Eleanor added: “And I still think it’s a good musical.”
“Yes!” Dania pumped a fist.
“What about this production, though?” Dania asked. “We can argue about Annie the script all day, I’m sure.”
“No, it’s a fine version of it,” Gwen said. “Not throwing any major reinterpretations at it. Billie Wildrick directed this, right?”
“Yes, surprise surprise,” Eleanor said.
“Who is she?”
“You’ve seen her before, Dania. She’s acted in a ton of stuff at the 5th.”
“But this is her first directing gig?”
“First of this scale, I believe.” Eleanor dug through Wildrick’s bio in the program, but no prior directing credits were listed – only previous roles at the 5th, and other local companies. “She’s definitely directed something before.”
“She has an excellent directorial eye for stage pictures, no question about it,” Gwen said. “Some of those moments are downright brilliant. Who would have thought to add the breadline behind ‘Tomorrow?’ A tiny detail, but hugely effective.”
“Transitions were clean, certainly,” Eleanor said. “I liked the folding and unfolding orphanage pieces.”
“I did notice, though,” Dania said. “Petty, maybe, but the orphanage was the only location that was, like, 3D? Everything else was a flat or a backdrop.”
“I clocked that, but what do you do about it?” Gwen said. “It’s Annie, there are about ten different locations and four of them are different places in Warbucks’ mansion. You either have to build all of them or start paring them down.”
“I figured,” Dania said. “The only one that bothered me was the Bert Healy scene in Act II, since the radio studio was so not there.”
“Oh, I liked that,” Eleanor said. “With the big logo above them? And there’s not a better actor in Seattle for Bert Healy than Matt Wolfe.”
“Why is there a masked announcer…” Gwen began, before tossing the idea. “It’s Annie, who cares…”
“Because it’s funny, Gwen.”
“But it has to have a point or –– never mind.”
“If I have any issue with it,” Eleanor said, “it’s only that the show feels like…just another production of Annie. Enough variety and strong performances to keep it interesting, but nothing that makes it stand out from the other versions of the same script.”
“I feel that,” Gwen said. “Still, with so many middle schools and youth theaters producing it, it’s shockingly rare to see a major regional production.”
“It’s a fun show,” Dania said. “Insult it’s script all you want, but it’s 40 years old and still a classic for a good reason.”
Gwen sighed. “I suppose so.”
“Is it really a holiday show, though?” Eleanor pivoted. “Enough to put a wreath on the program?”
“Not really,” Dania said. “I mean, Christmas is there. But it’s also in Rent.”
“You can’t do Rent at the holidays,” Gwen said. “You need to bring families in. Annie is all about building a non-traditional family.”
“So is Rent,” Eleanor pointed out. But Gwen only scoffed.
Image Credit: Visesia Fakatoufifita, Timothy McCuen Piggee, and the ensemble of Annie. / Photo: The 5th Avenue Theatre