I often commit the unfortunate preconception-based error of relegating certain plays, musicals particularly, to a realm of untouchably fey. Annie—originally adapted from Thomas Meechan’s book and Harold Gray’s comic strip for Broadway by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin—along with musicals like Hairspray and Sound of Music function in my memory as pieces that are so performatively sentimental and over-the-top that I cannot access their relatability or edge. I was taken aback, then to be confronted, in the best sense possible, with the acerbic wit and sonorous bleakness of Annie at a small theatre’s recreation of the piece.
Comtra Theatre, boasting a pleasingly cozy interior, augmented, by juxtaposition, the pleasantly jarring crassness of this most recent of production of Annie. The sentimental story is one certainly familiar to most in the theatre world—a plucky, assertive young girl, Annie, clings feverishly to the hope that her parents will retrieve her from the orphanage they abandoned her in years prior. However, Annie is given the opportunity to stay at the home of a munificent billionaire, Mr. Warbucks, over Christmas and soon becomes part of an unconventional family, despite the devious interventions of the mistress of the orphanage, Ms. Hannigan. Annie’s plot, by my recollection and preconceptions, was the appropriate hybridization of spirited melancholy and uplifting unreality for a musical targeted towards, primarily, children.
However, much like the often clandestinely sinister Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals or distressing Disney subplots, Annie is a musical that thrives on the darker elements accentuated by the sing-songy presentation. Much of the efficacy in making Comtra’s staging of Annie seem deceptively innocuous is the brilliant casting of perhaps the most precocious, promising troop of young women—or “little girls,” as Miss Hannigan scathingly refers to them as—that I have individually or collectively watched in quite some time. The titular precocious orphan Annie, is played with such unjaded spunk by outlandishly talented Zoie Beckas that I was compelled to reexamine the character, not as an irksomely optimistic twee thing, but a sassy, borderline crass, take-no-guff little girl ensconced in perhaps the most whimsically dreary conditions ever conceived. Furthermore, Annie’s cohort of ferocious orphanage dwellers—played with pitch-perfect mettle—were as unwaveringly spunky and boisterous as their lead, and the ensemble performance conveyed a certain lovely irreverence that I had not been able to enjoyably access in past viewings or a working memory of the musical. In addition to the undaunted performances of the young women, the entirety of the cast, down to the last extra, was exceptionally committed and exuberant to a fault. Miss Hannigan, captured with indomitable booziness by Cynthia Harding, was a savage comic relief to juxtapose some of the more hyper-sentimental or somber moments of the musical. It was perhaps Harding’s steadfast portrayal of Miss Hannigan that most solidified Comtra’s production as one that captured the multidimensionality of the play’s sneering bleakness.
While there were some technical points that could have been strengthened or remedied to enhance the overall quality of the viewing experience—for instance, the consistency and balance of the sound and the mics; the situating of the audience to avoid viewers being blocked by beams in the theatre—Comtra’s staging of Annie was an overall delightful (a term I wholly abhor using) experience that challenged my staunchly held opinions on the play’s overall consumptive appeal. Annie was a mirthfully dreary musical, in which lyrical snark presented a wonderful distraction (but with the right air of frustration) to the burdensome dreariness of current times, but not without giving a nod to the sourness of things today.
Annie runs at Comtra Theatre through December 16. Tickets and more information can be found here.