“Annie” is one of the few musicals in rarefied standing that will never lose its delightful charm. After all, who can rebuff an 11-year-old orphan named Annie out of their hearts, especially when she is resilient, nobly takes on her taxing challenges, brushes them off, and does so while singing away to her heart’s content? Needless to say, we couldn’t be happier to see the optimistic and courageous redhead, who, in her quest to find her birth parents, eludes the grasp of the dictatorial Miss Agatha Hannigan at the New York City Municipal Orphanage and eventually earns the fatherly love of billionaire mogul Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks.
The Hollywood Bowl – over the course of three consecutive nights between July 27th and 29th – hosted a spectacular, celebrity-filled “Annie” for capacity crowds of 18,000. Written by Thomas Meehan, with music and lyrics by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, respectively, the uplifting production debuted on Broadway in 1977, and then later saw a film release five years later, starring Carol Burnett, Albert Finney, Bernadette Peters, and Aileen Quinn.
Unquestionably, this recent special-event, grand version of “Annie” proved to be a tour de force in the limited time it played. Much of its success can be attributed to the direction of the ingenious Michael Arden (also the director of the Tony Award-winner for Best Revival in 2018 — “Once on This Island”), the conducting skills of Todd Ellison, and the choreography of Eamon Foley. Arden brought a Broadway-caliber order to the seamless transitions and excellent pacing, which were complemented by Ellison and his remarkable orchestra. Foley’s brilliance manifested itself in terrific fashion with numbers that especially utilized the ensemble, such as “It’s the Hard-Knock Life,” “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover,” “I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here,” “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” the reprises of “Tomorrow,” and the title song. Whether it was the orphan girls, depression-era squatters, Warbucks’ help staff, or even Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his presidential cabinet, everyone vivaciously got in on the act, showing off a precision that is observed in only the best of the best.
From a visual standpoint, Tom Ruzika’s lighting impeccably incorporated the expansiveness of the bowl, and set-designer Dane Laffrey had attendees buzzing with five gargantuan red block letters that spelled “Annie” on a stage that rotated on an axis and turned around revealing small set pieces inside. The orchestra sat atop a platform, and beneath them on the backside displayed more sets, as well as props by Hannah Burnham (e.g., dazzling Christmas trees and lights during the final scene).
Of course, in an open-air amphitheatre as deep as the Bowl, the sound needs to be top-notch, and Philip G. Allen’s spectacular sound design allowed the multitude of performers to be heard in crystal-clear form. Certainly, the elite cast brought their A-game by not only singing with outstanding flair, but unmitigatedly delivering their dialogue, while also retaining impressive subtleties that were not lost on the audiences.
Leading the incredible pack was Kaylin Hedges as Annie, a young prodigy who exceeds her years with a voice that is not only powerful, but expressive in its tonality. From tender songs like “Maybe,” in which she sings to Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja’s Molly – who is astoundingly adorable – to her positive spirit shining through in “Tomorrow,” Hedges has the confidence of a veteran Broadway star. In addition, as a result of Hedges’ convincingly heartfelt acting, we sensed her character’s yearning to escape the orphanage as we became acquainted with the chosen girl, who meets her precious Sandy (played by a gorgeous dog named Macy), and embarks on a future destined to far surpass her harsh beginnings.
Ana Gasteyer (“Saturday Night Live”) portrayed the most fun-to-despise Miss Hannigan one could hope for. With her glowering eyes and frustration, Gasteyer’s Hannigan was endlessly exasperated, pessimistic, and thrived off the melancholy of innocent children. Notably, Gasteyer, who sang “Little Girls” with an awesomely antagonistic bellow, invoked a sly sarcasm to slip in here and there, bolstered by her magnificent comic timing, to the tune of appreciative laughter. Her delivery in accusing Annie of being both a “drunk and a liar,” for instance, was just the kind of funny business that few can pull off as proficiently as she did.
Lea Salonga (“Miss Saigon”) played the lovely Grace Farrell, personal secretary to Warbucks (David Alan Grier). Both Salonga and the three-time Tony-Award nominee, Grier, emoted and sang with an upstanding dignity and fervency that particularly made the feel-good emotionality of “Annie” work beautifully. Salonga’s voice was textured and layered with a tangible humanity and Grier stunned with a lovely tenor voice that permeated with a liveliness in “N.Y.C.” (which also called attention to a memorable appearance by Ali Stroker, the Star to be) and a poignancy in “You Won’t Be an Orphan for Long,” “Something Was Missing,” and “I Don’t Need Anything But You.” We not only believed Grier as a man who represented the highest tier of society, but we also understood an immutable truth through his characterization that money could never buy the ultimate fulfillment founded on love.
Furthermore, Roger Bart (“The Producers”) and Megan Hilty (“Smash”) won over audience members with their funny and dastardly turns as Daniel “Rooster” Hannigan and Lily St. Regis, who were most appropriately accentuated during the wickedly playful “Easy Street.” Bart’s Rooster was the ultimate conman with a mischievousness about him, and Hilty’s Lily, dipped in a high-pitched New York accent, elicited cheers from her adoring fans. The two characters were uproariously immoral, striving to cash in on the $50,000 reward for the discovery of Annie’s real parents by impersonating the pig-farming Mudges, who were climactically thwarted.
Deserving of recognition is also Steven Weber, who was graceful and self-aware as the classy Franklin D. Roosevelt; Amir Talai, who was disarmingly idiosyncratic as radio show host, Bert Healy; and the girls comprising the orphans, including Marlow Barkley, Amadi Chapata, Noe Lynds, Rae Martinez, and Olivia Madison Zenetzis, who danced and sang, often with mops, towels, and a hamper in their midst, with a mind-boggling degree of professional accuracy.
Suffice it to say, “Annie” found her way in our collective hearts again – this time with a production that involved a who’s who of the stage world, both behind the scenes and in the spotlight. There’s no doubt that this presentation of “Annie,” which hit all the right notes vocally and thematically, would have enjoyed a prosperous and award-winning run if it ran on Broadway.
For more information about future events at the Hollywood Bowl, please visit hollywoodbowl.com