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As musical theatre, 1977’s Annie is still evergreen, and the current North Carolina Theatre production, featuring the show’s original Annie, Andrea McArdle, as the boozy mistress of the orphanage, gets almost everything exactly right.
When the lyricist Martin Charnin first began work on his musical adaptation of the Harold Grey comic strip Little Orphan Annie in 1972, he conceived the show as a response to Nixonian malaise: Watergate, Viet Nam, and an economy in the doldrums. By the time it opened, Carter was in the White House, and Annie, instead of a critique of cultural and political ills, wound up reflecting a sense of popular optimism. And if that seems fairly schizophrenic for a musical comedy, it’s only fitting: few cultural arbiters of the 1930s were less supportive of the populist Roosevelt Administration than Harold Grey, who loathed the New Deal. And this is a show that not only mentions FDR — it includes him as a major character.
If Thomas Meehan’s book for Annie substitutes limp political humor for genuine satire and is never quite as funny as one might wish, and if Charnin’s lyrics are occasionally merely serviceable, both do exactly what is required of a rather old-fashioned musical comedy. Moreover, Charnin’s words sit beautifully on Charles Strouse’s marvelously evocative music. His 1930s pastiche score for Annie is the composer’s finest, especially with Philip J. Lang’s splendid orchestrations buoying it up, banjoes and all.
Under Edward G. Robinson’s joyous and spirited musical direction, and with a cast of actor-singers to match, NCT’s Annie is about as pleasingly melodious a show as you’re likely to find. Casey Hushion’s direction moves the show along in brisk fashion, yet she honors the small moments as well as the bustle. Although the pacing of McArdle’s early appearance feels off, once the show gathers steam it never falters. The choreography by Vince Pesce, modeled on Peter Gennaro’s original dances, is a major asset as well, particularly in the great “Easy Street” number, wherein the high-kicks and refreshingly adult bump-and-grind combine with Strouse’s superlative melody and Charnin’s mischievous jokes to tear the roof off the theatre.
The role of Miss Hannigan was initially considered supporting until the late Dorothy Loudon turned it into a star part through the sheer comic force of her considerable personality. McArdle, whose vocal abilities have always been stellar — take a listen to her “Georgia Sand” on the concert recording of Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant some time — laces into Hannigan’s hilarious lament “Little Girls” with panache and literally kicks up her heels in the superb comedic trio “Easy Street,” one of the best numbers of its kind anyone has written in the last 50 years. Ultimately McArdle isn’t Dorothy Loudon but then, who is? If you look up “uninhibited” in the dictionary, it’s Loudon’s picture you’ll see.
Robert Newman lends tremendous presence to “Daddy” Warbucks (how Dickens would have cherished that name!), employing a brusque, well-meaning charm and a gravelly timbre that cracks beautifully as the millionaire begins to recognize the effect the orphan girl is having on him. And his robust voice blends perfectly with the gorgeous coloratura trill of Christy Morton in the big “NYC” number. Morton gives a lovely performance as Warbucks’ loyal secretary Grace, and her timing is a thing of beauty.
Annie rises or falls, however, not on these characters but on the orphan herself. In English Bernhardt, NCT has an Annie to dote on. Although she is occasionally hobbled by some shrill, tinny miking, Bernhardt’s clarion voice rings with exceptional clarity, spirit, and grace. Her sister orphans are uniformly excellent; these children display more energy and terpsichorean style in five minutes than many shows can generate in two hours. Special mention must be made of tiny Mary Kate Englehardt. Her ingratiating performance as Molly, the smallest of the tribe is — there is no other word for it — adorable, yet without the faintest trace of guile.
In the large supporting cast, Joey Calveri does wonders with the nefarious Rooster Hannigan; all fluid hips and purple pinstripes, he’s like an insinuating pimp without a harem. Brian Norris gets the most out of his smarmy, ballyhooing turn as the creepily over-ingratiating radio crooner Bert Healy; Dana Zihlman Harshaw is an endearingly ditzy Lily St. Regis; Heather Patterson King is a perky, strutting delight as the “Hooverville” cook Sophie, bearing more than a passing resemblance to another Sophie, the red-hot Tucker; and Eric Mann has a great deal of presence in a pair of rather small roles. One last thespian of note is Mikey, who breaks and warms hearts, seemingly without effort, as the forlorn but finally triumphant Sandy.
Leapin’ Lizards! Children and dogs — how W.C. Fields would have cringed! You, however, should have a wonderful time.
NCT's Annie continues at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium through August 1; for details, see our calendar.