By Michael T. Mooney (Originally reviewed for BroadwayWorld November 2, 2018)
In 1976, a 12 year-old girl from Pennsylvania took over the leading role in Broadway-bound musical based on the adventures of Little Orphan Annie, the legendary saucer-eyed orphan of the Sunday funnies. The musical sensation ANNIE has defined Andrea McArdle's career ever since. Her powerhouse rendering of the show's anthemic hit "Tomorrow" is indelibly associated with her to this day. In 1977 she appeared on television in an "Annie Christmas Show" and, although she didn't do the 1982 film adaptation, she sang the role of Star-To-Be in Disney's highly praised 1999 TV version. Now she's returning to the show once again - this time as Annie's arch nemesis, Miss Hannigan. Coincidentally, the production that showcases McArdle (left) is located just two miles from Monmouth University, which doubled for Daddy Warbucks' mansion in the film. It's the ideal homecoming for both show and star.
The Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal has lately taken on the mission to become one of New Jersey's newest professional theatres. With ANNIE, they've taken a huge step forward. You might at first think that you can't sit through yet another production of this timeless warhorse, but the Axelod's ANNIE sings a different tune. It manages to be firmly rooted in Broadway tradition while also being refreshingly modern. The overwhelming success of the show can be directly attributed to director / choreographer Al Blackstone, as well as its immaculate production design.
Scenic Designer Logan Greenwall has created a spare, yet surprisingly elegant, single setting. At first, it seems like an impossible task to present ANNIE without a truckload of scenery; yet miraculously it works. Movable mint green columns (in forced perspective) manage to suggest the luxurious Warbucks mansion as well as a dingy Hooverville camp. In one especially impressive moment, they even resemble the towering skyscrapers of NYC. This magical transformation works hand in hand with Catherine Clark's evocative lighting design. As with the staging, there's a few modern touches that somehow manage not to drag the show into the 21st century. There aren't enough superlatives in the thesaurus to describe Scaramouche's depression-era costumes, some of which are replicas of those seen in the 1977 original, but all of which are tailored to perfection. They are all topped off (literally) by period-perfect hair and wig design by Derek Alfano and Emilia Martin.
Director Blackstone works his most impressive feat of magic by simply tamping down the kitsch factor. There's none of the cloyingly saccharine theatrics that mar most productions of the musical. The seamless mix of professional and community cast deliver the material with a sincerity well grounded in truth. Of course, every director wants to put their stamp on timeworn material, and Blackstone is no exception. He introduces a 'living overture' that frames the show (with mixed success). He also interpolates two songs from the 1982 film version, one of which ("We Got Annie") supplants the more robust title song, a regrettable swap. The blending of "Let's Go To A Movie" and "NYC", however, is so perfect that it should be compulsory for all productions going forward.
Under the intimate warmth of the Axelrod footlights, Andrea McArdle capably delivers both her trademark Broadway-belt and a comic sense of desperation that somehow makes Aggie Hannigan sympathetic. As the title character, Jersey girl Echo Deva Picone easily matches McArdle's clarion vocals. There's not a false note (dramatically or musically) from this tousled-haired tot. Almost equally impressive in their support are Kate Marshall (Grace Farrell) and Patrick Oliver Jones (Warbucks). Marshall manages to be primly authoritative with a palpable dollop of warmth. Jones has an authoritative presence that doesn't rely on being follically challenged. Also representing the original Broadway production is dog trainer Bill Berloni, who this time presents Marti as Sandy, Annie's canine counterpart. In these difficult times, it is hard not to succumb to the charms of an orphan, a stray dog, and a tuneful show that culminates at Christmas. As the lyrics to the (absent) title song say "Annie kicked out the blues!"
ANNIE The Musical performs through November 18th at Axelrod Performing Arts Center, 100 Grant Avenue, Deal, NJ. Call 732-531-9106 or visit axelrodartscenter.com
photos courtesy of Rich Kowalksi