Annie – starring Tony nominee Louise Pitre as a nasty, herky-jerky Miss Hannigan – is this year’s holiday show at Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre. In his program notes, director Allen MacInnis asks: “Why are children drawn to stories of orphans?” An interesting question, for sure, but not one of five that popped into my head while watching his pared-down, emotionally empty production of the 1977 musical.
1) Why cast an adult as Annie? Recent Sheridan College graduate Jenny Weisz plays the title role and, while she has a lovely voice, she mugs and mugs like it’s Times Square in the 1980s. Without an actual child in the lead role, songs like Maybe seem cloying instead of charming. There’s been such great new musical theatre in recent years featuring dazzling performances by young actors – Billy Elliot, Matilda – I’m not sure I understand the choice here unless it’s a budgetary one. (Which might also explains the sad orchestrations: a piano and one reed player.)
2) How long is an actual child’s attention span these days? This version of Annie shrinks the musical down to just under 90 minutes, no intermission, but that wasn’t short enough to keep the five-year-olds sitting across the aisle from me interested. They were in open rebellion by the end of the show and I couldn’t blame them. In stripping down the show so severely, there’s no time for an audience to build a solid relationship with Annie or for Annie to develop a believable one with the billionaire Warbucks (a sombre Sterling Jarvis). It’s just a double-time parade of dated jokes and decent tunes.
3) Speaking of whom, why has Daddy Warbucks been renamed Oliver Warbucks? This change does not lessen the creepiness of his desire to spend Christmas with an orphan boy; the sudden infatuation he develops with the parent-free girl procured by his assistants instead; or his eventual bizarre proposal to Annie – complete with blue Tiffany’s box – to become his adopted daughter.
4) Why on earth is the song Tomorrow seen as an ode to optimism? I guess I haven’t seen Annie in a long time, because I forgot this anthem is repeated so frequently. Indeed, it’s reprised so often you eventually come to realize how depressing it is (matching Teresa Pryzbylski and Michael Walton’s dark designs and Nicola Pantin’s uninspired choreography). Even in Les Miserables, “tomorrow comes,” but here it is “always a day away.” What is really needed is a Theatre for Young Audiences version of Rent to teach kids that there’s No Day But Today.
5) Do today’s kiddies find jokes about the New Deal funny? If not, too bad. The scene with Franklin Roosevelt (Richard Binsley) and his cabinet is the best in the production, as MacInnis directs it as over-the-top parody and the actors don ridiculous wigs designed by Melanie McNeill that bring to mind the work of VideoCabaret. (I think, though I’m not certain, that the triple-cast Pitre is spoofing Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.) This is one of the few places where the comedy is allowed to breathe; everywhere else, it is out of breath. Theatre for Young People’s Annie is a case of less being less.