Broadway in Austin’s “Annie” is one of those shows you want to love. It’s got all the memorable songs: “Tomorrow,” “Maybe,” “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” “Little Girls,” “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” “Easy Street,” “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” and “I Don’t Need Anything But You.” It also has some songs that make you scratch your head because they weren’t memorable and you now understand why they didn’t make it into a version movie: “N.Y.C.,” “You Won’t Be an Orphan for Long,” and the cringe-worthy closing song “”A New Deal for Christmas.”
The problem with this “Annie,” compared with the movie that came out last December, is it’s incredibly dated. When I asked lyricist and director Martin Charnin about that earlier this month, he kept insisting that “Annie” is a timeless story about a girl’s search and hope to find her family. You can read that preview story here.
He’s right; that part is timeless and feels like something with which today’s kids can relate. The problem is the context of the play. The Great Depression, Hoovervilles, the New Deal — all play heavily in the story line of “Annie.” My 11-year-old daughter kept asking me questions: What are they talking about? When is this? Is this before World War II or after? Who is this Herbert Hoover?
Even though my daughter comes from a family that has talked about history her whole life, and she’s heard stories of her great-grandfathers in World War II and a little about the Great Depression, she’s three, possibly four generations removed from this time period. She grew restless every time President Roosevelt appeared or there was talk about any Hoover — Herbert or J. Edgar. Name droppings of Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan went completely over her head. It was one big “Huh?”
It’s not really her fault. Her fifth-grade U.S. History class has only gotten to the writing of the Constitution. Her brother’s eighth-grade U.S. History class is only at the Civil War. They just don’t know 20th century history. After all, they were born in this century.
The parts where “Annie” continues to shine is anytime Annie, played by Issie Swickle, and the other orphans are on the stage. Miss Hannigan, played by Lynn Andrews, steals and rescues this show. She caused full belly laughs throughout our area, which had a huge number of children my daughter’s age and younger. Even though she’s the villain, there are long stretches during which you hope she’ll come back on stage. We also wanted more Sandy, the dog, even though the dog that played him appeared to be bored the short time he was on the stage.
In keeping with the 1930s theme, Annie affected a 1930s New Englander accent every time she sang that didn’t always match her speaking voice. Lose the accent and her personality would shine through more. The other distraction was how much Issie messed with her wig in the final scene as well as the sailor suit and classic Annie dress. The audience could tell Issie felt uncomfortable in these stiff outfits. Issie has been playing Annie since August. By now, her outfits and her wig should fit her well and feel like second nature to her instead of irritating her.
“”Annie” is also long for its target audience. It’s 21/2 hours, and even with an intermission, it’s a recipe for seat squirming. Broadway in Austin should consider starting kid-oriented shows like the upcoming “The Little Mermaid” at 7 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. There would be a lot less children falling asleep in the theater and being carried out by their parents.
One other note: Bass Concert Hall continues to have sound problems. This time was better than “Mamma Mia,” but some of the talking parts were a bit muffled, especially in the beginning of the show with the orphans.
We’d easily return to see “Annie” for the the kids and Miss Hannigan and we’ve been singing the songs all morning long, but it really is time for “Annie” to get an update, one that is better than the 2014 movie.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2300 Robert Dedman Drive