Ellie Pulsifer and Christopher Swan in “Annie.” (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.)
Hope is not dead yet! Optimism still sells! That message alone is reason enough to feel good about the success of Annie, one of modern Broadway’s feel-goodest family musicals, in which a plucky, Dickensian orphan with a sun’ll-come-out disposition lucks into the American Dream, a literal rags-to-riches tale. Since its Tony-winning debut in 1977, Annie has persevered with multiple film versions, TV specials, spinoff sequels, and even one Jay-Z remix. The New York Times estimated that there are roughly 700-900 performances of Annie in the United States every year, via high schools, community theatres, regional theatres, occasional revivals, and regular national tours.
The latest traveling version—a Troika Entertainment production, currently alighted on the Muriel Kauffman Theater stage as part of the PNC Broadway in Kansas City season—delivers all the charm and cheer of the original, with the energy of a new generation. Thomas Meehan’s comic-strip-inspired book still bounds along briskly, providing the framework for composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin’s litany of instant-earworm songs (I won’t mention them yet, so as to spare you the distraction). Yet the vigor of the staging and youthfulness of the ensemble (regardless of years) makes the familiar feel fresh.
Director Jenn Thompson—whose own relationship to Annie dates back to her appearance in that first Broadway production, when she was 10—deploys an upliftingly large and abundantly talented cast of veterans and young stars: 18 adults, seven children, and one dog (two, if you count the dog’s understudy). There’s also a 10-piece orchestra that plays with a punch beyond its numbers in the Kauffman’s acoustically-friendly confines.
The demanding title role is ably filled by 12-year-old Ellie Pulsifer, who handles the dialogue with charisma, and the vocals with ease; her powerful hold on the famous, final note of “Tomorrow” is satisfying enough to justify the whole evening—if the half-dozen half-pints perfectly synchronized around her haven’t already won you over (Bronte Harrison and Vivianne Neely stand out in particular as Molly and July, and in other ensemble roles). Even Addison, as Annie’s beloved stray Sandy, delivers her barks perfectly on cue (as trained by Bill Berloni).
As the “evil” orphan-wrangler Miss Hannigan, Stefanie Londino balances excellent comic timing with some sympathetic nuance. Likewise, Christopher Swan offers a convincing softer side to the stubborn Fifth-Avenue billionaire Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks. Nick Bernardi and Krista Curry add villainous fun as the con-artist couple who see Annie as their ticket to Easy Street. And while all the leads boast top-tier singing chops, Julia Nicole Hunter rises above as Warbucks’s dutiful assistant Grace; her operatic voice is so elevated that it’s unfortunate she doesn’t have more solos.
Patricia Wilcox’s choreography and Wilson Chin’s elegant, modular sets help the plot bounce swiftly from scene to scene, as Annie gets plucked from the orphanage, wins over Warbucks in one song, and even gets to tag along to the White House, where, Forrest Gump-like, she redirects the course of American history with a brief refrain of “Tomorrow,” inspiring FDR (Mark Woodard) and his cabinet to brainstorm The New Deal—and, you know, end the Great Depression.
Sure, a cynic can see holes in the plot, and find fault in too-convenient storytelling devices. In 2023, some of the dialogue now lands a little uncomfortably, as do the giggles prompted by the tortured Miss Hannigan’s self-medicating slugs of vodka.
Not everything about Annie has aged well. But part of the durable appeal of Annie is that she and her lovable scrum of little orphans never age—and it’s hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of the very young actors, who could only recently have discovered the show, and now are starring in it.
Leaping lizards! I was even younger when one of the first tours came through Kansas City in the early ’80s, and Annie became the first Broadway show I ever saw, and the original cast album (yes, an actual album) would be the first I owned. Not that a recording is really necessary—with even just one earful, the songs will likely play on a loop in your head: “It’s a Hard-Knock Life”…“Little Girls”…“Easy Street”…“I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here”…“You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.” Do you hear them now?
Well, if all of that—hope for the future? nostalgia for the past?—sounds like a good time, don’t delay. Annie may be an enduring classic, but your chance to see it at the Kauffman Center is fleeting—the tour moves on after this weekend. For a dose of optimism, there is no day like today. Or tomorrow.
“Annie” runs through April 23 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Broadway Blvd. For more information, visit www.americantheatreguild.com.