KPBS AIRDATE: October 21, 1992
A critic owes it to her audience to be honest about her biases. So let me come clean and say that I didn’t really care for the original, 1977 smash-hit musical, “Annie.” It was cartoonish, but not in the right ways. It milked the cute-kids and dog routine to death. And it only really had one song.
So now, along comes “Annie Warbucks,” the sequel, close on the heels of the failed “Annie 2,” which bombed before it even hit Broadway two years ago.
In only one sense is this new “Annie” an innovative effort. It’s a collaboration of five musical theater companies, including Starlight, now reverting back to its original, 47 year-old name, the San Diego Civic Light Opera.. All five companies will participate in next spring’s Broadway debut of “Annie Warbucks.” This is exciting: maybe the only way that new musicals, which are outrageously expensive, can be developed and produced.
Well, that said, we can move on to this expensive effort, which, with all its elaborateness, is pretty banal.
The hateful Miss Hannigan has been replaced. I might add that I’m one of the few who really detested Dorothy Loudon in the first “Annie” — I thought the LOUD part of her name was most apt. So now we have New York City Welfare Commissioner Harriet Stark, part harridan, part comic vaudevillian, in another overblown performance that gets a lot of laughs for Alene Robertson. This bureaucratic she-wolf drags out a little-known law that says a single person — male or female — can not adopt a child.
So Oliver Warbucks can’t become Daddy to Annie — unless there’s a Mommy in the picture. Everyone, especially Annie, spends most of the script looking for the perfect maternal parental unit for the little red-haired mop-top. That should be enough to carry a frothy musical, but into the stew are tossed FDR, the TVA, starving sharecroppers who really know how to dance, and a shameless Bill Bojangles/Shirley Temple knockoff number between Annie and the black Tennessee farmer whose large-boned wife can, of course, shake it and sing the blues. Good grief! Oops, wrong comic strip. Leapin’ lounge-lizards. The creative team for “Annie One: The Prequel” is back with a vengeance.
Onstage, Harve Presnell is a deep-voiced, commanding Daddy, and Lauren Gaffney is a charming Annie. And let’s not forgot those adorable little ragamuffin orphans, who are incredibly cute and certainly can dance. Tiny Lindsay Ridgeway, a seven year-old, looks like she’s violating child labor laws. But she sure is cute. And the dog is scruffy. And the music is derivative. And the plot is predictable. And the opening night audience was on its feet. So go figure.
The play takes place during a Depression. So does this production. Then, New Deal was on its way. Now, maybe the New Covenant is. What’ll the authors do in three weeks, with all the references to Bushes at the White House and billionaire candidates and Omigod! Republicans? More rewrites? Been there, done that.
Well, it serves me right. I’ve been praying for a good old-fashioned new musical, without the histrionics, pyrotechnics and hype. So here it is, but it was so retro and trite, I was kind of hoping a helicopter would land in the backyard of that Tennessee family. Or maybe a chandelier would fall from the sky.
Anyway, take what I say in its context. You and the kids may just flip over “Annie Warbucks.” As for me, I’ll be looking forward to some really memorable music from “Fiddler” and ” Oklahoma ,” coming soon at the Civic.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.