Leapin' Lizards! Annie Is Back on Tour, With a Fresh Approach and a New Song

News   Leapin' Lizards! Annie Is Back on Tour, With a Fresh Approach and a New Song
 
The orphan may be almost 30 years old, but in the new touring version of 1977's Annie, launching in Seattle Aug. 21, audiences can expect a "gussied up" version of the hit musical.

Director and lyricist Martin Charnin told Playbill.com that he isn't reinventing the wheel with this new 50-week staging by Networks Tours. But he's learned from the 16 previous productions he's staged since Broadway.

"What this show ends up being is the beneficiary of all the work that I've done in the previous incarnations of it," Charnin told Playbill.com. "Every one of those shows was responsible for making something new happen, either by virtue of what an actor does by bringing something to it, or a piece blocking or a musical interpretation. I've put all of it together."

In collaboration with his writing partners Charles Strouse (music) and Thomas Meehan (book), Charnin added a new musical number to the show a couple of years ago, giving Daddy Warbucks another moment in Act One. The song (heard in this the new tour) is called "Why Should I Change a Thing?," and its premiere was in a 2000 Australian staging starring Anthony Warlow. The song was also heard in an Atlanta production that subsequently toured for several weeks in 2004.

The new Annie stars Conrad John Schuck as Daddy, Alene Robertson as Miss Hannigan, Mackenzie Phillips as Lily St. Regis, Elizabeth Broadhurst as Warbucks' faithful assistant, Grace, Scott Willis as Rooster and newcomer Marissa O'Donnell as Annie.

What else is new with the production that begins Seattle's Paramount Theatre? "Fortunately, I was able to get Ming Cho Lee to do the sets," Charnin said. "Ming has not really been active in the musical theatre for quite a while, he's been teaching at Yale. I think this is the third time we've done something, and he was delighted to return and put his stamp on this thing. It's quite stunning. This is a very opulent production from a scenic standpoint. Every one of the sets is new — reconceived in terms of its look. From a 'painting' standpoint, and from a pure visual standpoint, it's just so elegant and stunning and amazing. The thing we both were searching for was a way to make the 'poor' part of the show — the orphanage part of the show — a little more frightening and intimidating, so the contrast between the life that she leaves and the life that she goes to is much more in evidence."

Some directors choose to highlight the story's roots in the funny papers (in Harold Gray's "Little Orphan Annie"), and others underline the more realistic aspects of the Depression-era tale. Is the show a cartoon?

"The thing that I wanted to correct, if anything can be corrected, is that it's not a cartoon," Charnin explained. "From the beginning it's a very real event with real feelings, a real kid having real emotions — really wanting to find her parents. If you do it as a cartoon, you undercut the reality. We didn't write a cartoon. We wrote a very honest story about a spunky kid who was gonna survive no matter what."

Also new here, Charnin said, is that musical director, supervisor and orchestrator Keith Levenson has "gussied up" Philip J. Lang's original charts. The 1977 score is intact — including "We'd Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover," which some regional directors cut. The placement of Act Two's "I Don't Need Anything But You" is slightly different this time around, to allow the song to be sung in full iconic regalia — Warbucks in formal wear, Annie in her read dress with the white collar.

The Tony Award-winning musical follows the adventures of a moppet adopted by billionaire Warbucks in Depression-era New York City. Corrupt orphanage matron Miss Hannigan plots to get a piece of the Warbucks pie, collaborating with her crooked brother, Rooster, and his dim-witted girlfriend, Lily.

The cast also includes Allan Baker (FDR), Taylor Bright (July), Julia Cardia (Swing), David Chernault (Drake/Ensemble), Kelly Lynn Cosme (Boylan Sister/Ensemble), Richard Costa (Ensemble), Antionette DiPietropolo (Swing), Brian Michael Hoffman (Dog Catcher/Swing/Dog Handler), Aaron Kaburick (Bundles/Justice Brandeis/Ensemble), Billy Kimmel (Swing), Michelle Knight (Boylin Sister/Ensemble), Monica L. Patton (Star To Be/Ensemble), Katherine Pecevich (Mrs. Pugh/Ensemble), Brittany Portman (Pepper), Liz Power (Ensemble), Ed Romanoff (Ensemble), Lindsay E. Ryan (Molly), Molly J. Ryan (Duffy/U.S. Molly), Harry Turpin (Harold Ickes/Sound Effects Man/Ensemble), Christopher Vettel (Bert Healy/Ensemble/U.S. FDR), Casey Whyland (Tessie), Stevani Alise Weaver (Kate/U.S. Annie).

Of young Marissa O'Donnell, Charnin said, "She's just breathtaking. She's one of the most wonderful child actresses I've ever had in my life. She brings a warmth and a humanity to the part that has been missing for a long time."

Celebrated as a powerful character actress with a foghorn voice, Robertson created the role of Commissioner Doyle in the musical's Off-Broadway sequel, Annie Warbucks, and played the role in 2004 at Walnut Street Theatre. Her performance is captured on the cast album of Annie Warbucks. She earned a Drama Desk nomination as Doyle.

In her home base of Chicago, Robertson has won nine Joseph Jefferson Awards.

"This is her crowning performance," Charnin said. "She is screamingly funny and still singing with that amazing voice."

Schuck is a veteran of Broadway and touring productions of Annie has morphed into the role to truly embody the character, Charnin said.

Phillips is best known for playing troubled daughter Julie on TV's "One Day at a Time." Charnin said she can do comedy and play the dark stuff, too.

The new production includes the original Broadway musical staging by Peter Gennaro (choreography is by Liza Gennaro), lighting design by Ken Billington, costume design by Theoni Aldredge and sound design by Peter Hylenski. Annie is being presented by executive producer Ken Gentry. The tour is a Networks Tours production.

Charnin said he hopes this production ends up having a life on Broadway in April 2007, marking the 30th anniversary of the Broadway opening of the show that inspired a new generation (the anthem "Tomorrow" was a tonic for a depressed post-Vietnam-era audience).

For now, Annie is aiming at San Diego, Denver, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and beyond.

For more information, visit www.annieontour.com.

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The original Broadway production of Annie won seven 1977 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Book and Score. It ran for 2,377 performances, and has subsequently been produced in all over the world.

A 2004 staging of Annie, produced by Atlanta's Theatre of the Stars Jan. 14-18 prior to a mini tour, surprised fans of the show with the inclusion of a new song.

The tune, "Why Should I Change a Thing?," made its American premiere with the production that played Atlanta's Fox Theatre, and then Columbus, Hartford and Detroit. The tune by lyricist-director Martin Charnin and composer Charles Strouse, was penned for a 2000 Australian staging that starred Anthony Warlow.

Charnin admitted that keeping the work fresh is important — as long as it doesn't hurt the balance of the show's proven craft.

"I haven't [directed] one in five years," he told Playbill.com in 2004. "The last production I did was in Australia, back in 1999. I've only done the first-class [commercial] productions and the bus and trucks. I've never done a [not-for-profit] regional theatre production. The Australian production was one in which we had the opportunity to write a new song for Warbucks. It was done in Sydney and Melbourne, but what was done [in the U.S.] up until this [Atlanta] production has been the 'old version.'"

Is "Why Should I Change a Thing?" a trunk song or new?

"It's not a trunk song by any stretch of the imagination," Charnin said. "It was written because the guy who played Warbucks in Australia is a wonderful singer named Anthony Warlow. In a kind of genteel way, he said, 'You know it's really a shame that Warbucks doesn't sing as much as I'd like him to.' That was over a lunch meeting when I first cast him. I went away and about two months later I went looking for a place to put this Warlow/Warbucks song in.

"The big problem was to do it without disturbing the fabric of the show, without tilting it in the direction of being a musical about Daddy Warbucks. It has to stay a musical about Annie.

"On one of my train rides from my house in Connecticut to New York, I said to myself, 'Why should I change a thing?' That knocked me on the head: It's a good title for the song and the moment, and that is indeed what it is called. It comes at the end of the first act."

Future licensed scripts and score of Annie will include the new song, Charnin said. A fresh song for Miss Hannigan was written for the 1997 Broadway revival that starred Nell Carter, but the song does not appear in any versions today.

"That song is gone, it's gone, it's gone," Charnin said. "Charles and I have often looked at one another and can't even remember the lyric or the tune."

Conrad John Schuck and Marissa O'Donnell in <i>Annie</i> (flanking "Sandy").
Conrad John Schuck and Marissa O'Donnell in Annie (flanking "Sandy").
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