A girl, a dream, and a values check.
It took about two minutes, scarcely into the opening number of Annie at the Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis, for me to realize two things: One, these child performers make American Idol wannabes sound like pelicans regurgitating fish; and two, this may be the most profound revival staged by any Twin Cities theater so far this year (with the possible exception of Frank Theatre’s Cabaret). Leapin’ lizards, I’m serious.
It’s a product of two Peters: Peter Brosius, the CTC’s longtime artistic director, and Peter Rothstein, the omnipresent (and possibly omnipotent) director of his own Theatre Latte Da’s musicals and many more around town, most notably at the Guthrie Theater. Annie, the familiar story of an orphan who works her way into the heart of a seemingly heartless industrialist, hasn’t been seen in these parts—or any parts—in a long time, and never at the CTC. This production may single-handedly become responsible for boosting sales of red children’s clothing and hair dye in the Twin Cities. It leaves you humming, with a tune in your head and a lump in your throat. Annie is irresistible—you’ll want to take Annie home yourself. As the girl sitting beside me told her mother, “I wish Annie were my sister.”
In form, the musical is a classic if not clichéd Broadway song-and-dance; if you threw every move ever made in a Broadway musical from 1920 to 1980 into a pot and boiled it down it might look like this: all jazz hands and show-stopping crescendos. The songs, from "Tomorrow" to "It’s the Hard Knock Life" to "Easy Street" might be saccharine if they weren’t so sincere.
Unlike so many new musicals, this revival is the furthest thing from cynical: it’s about values in a way that feels frighteningly old-fashioned—love versus money, selfishness versus generosity, private versus public good. (Spiderman, if it ever gets off the ground on Broadway, will have half as much to say—and not just because the superhero doesn’t speak.) The setting for these arguments is the Great Depression, the last time our country was this far up the economic creek and the last time that economic inequality was so stark. Daddy Warbucks, the billionaire who can affect national policy with a phone call, is a familiar figure again (Daddy Koch?) as we are again a nation of oligarchs. Under Rothstein’s direction, the politics of the two eras are neatly spliced: At one point, having invited President Roosevelt to dinner, Warbucks asks, “What do Democrats eat for dinner?” It was a slight line in the original, but it’s not a throwaway here. By the end, thanks to Annie, Warbucks and Roosevelt are singing about a “new deal.” (Here’s an analysis of the playwright’s characterization of President Roosevelt: imdb.com/character/ch0027854/bio)
Fans of the original Annie comic strip and subsequent movies and musicals will note a few absences: Punjab, Warbucks’s Indian servant, as well as the explanation for why Warbucks wants to host an orphan in the first place (public relations). Both might have been more difficult to explain than it was worth. Also, Warbucks is less menacing and more harmlessly obtuse than in other versions, making his transition to a softie somewhat less dramatic.
But Rothstein has the pleasure here of directing fellow Guthrie regular Lee Mark Nelson as Warbucks along with CTC’s stellar regulars and several new young stars whose voices may in time make them rich for real. In fact, the production serves as an argument for the CTC itself, the largest children’s theatre, by budget, in the country. Less than a year ago, it was forced to cut staff and cancel shows. Brosius has pulled out all the stops here—a large, talented cast; a meticulous, eye-catching set; and every number from the original musical, as if to say, “This is what Minnesota deserves.”
Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Ave. S., Mpls.
Through June 12