An Immersive “Annie” Explodes At Area Stage
If you’d told me a few weeks ago that one of the most exciting and innovative productions to hit South Florida so far this year would be a staging of Annie, I may have been a bit skeptical. While the classic 1977 musical has been widely beloved for its spunky main character and touching storyline, it isn’t exactly known for its iconoclasm.
Yet, in the hands of Area Stage associate artistic director Giancarlo Rodaz, this old favorite becomes something fresh, thought-provoking, and invigorating, starting with its immersive design. As we enter the theatre, we are welcomed by cast members to a black box space that has been fully transformed into a speakeasy, complete with cocktails on offer at an onstage bar—some audience members even remain seated there for the in-the-round performance.
The scene setting continues with a thematically on-point newspaper-style program, roaming cast members selling kettle corn and pretzels, and another cast member crooning some pre-show tunes.
Then, once the show actually begins, we are instantly engaged in orphan Annie’s plight thanks to the incredible performance of leading actress Staci Stout. Her powerful, crystal clear singing voice and enthusiastic and genuine energy quickly make you forget that she’s playing a character at least a decade her junior.
All of the show’s other performers were adults as well, part of the Brechtian vision that informed Rodaz’s directorial choices. They also use unconventional makeshift props to create a sense of theatricality meant to emphasize the show’s darker themes and depression-era setting rather than its optimistic verve.
Against all odds, this approach actually seems to work, at least to an extent. For instance, when Annie’s dog Sandy was played by a puppet that appeared to be made of trash, it highlighted the austerity of her surroundings in a way that made the love Annie felt for her pet even more poignant. And “It’s A Hard Knock Life” made a far bigger impact as a Spring Awakening-esque showcase of the orphans’ repressed rage than it did as the cutesy ditty you might remember from productions past.
Though not quite as young as some of their characters, the cast was indeed all on the youthful side, a collection of fresh-faced and incredibly versatile performers who were up to the challenge of transforming into the various parts the small cast size of eight necessitated that they play. This especially included Imran Hylton as orphanage owner Miss Hannigan, a male actor whose casting in the traditionally female role gave it a new comedic edge—and the characters’ constant drinking also served as a marvelous sight gag throughout.
But it’s hard to name standouts in such an all-around charming ensemble. From Frank Montoto’s sensitive Daddy Warbucks to John Mazuelo’s slick, conniving Rooster to Katie Duerr’s sweet and strong-voiced Grace, I couldn’t find a bad apple in the bunch!
There were, though, a few moments where Annie’s text felt at odds with Rodaz’s unique approach. For instance, an attractive adult woman like Stout singing the loving duet I Don’t Need Anything But You with her father figure Daddy Warbucks suggested an unfortunate sexual tension between the two that would have been unfathomable with a younger actress in the part.
There’s also the fact that the script of Annie, while dependably entertaining and ultimately heartwarming, is nowhere near as revolutionary as what Rodaz did with it. That little orphan Annie’s salvation comes from what amounts mostly to a lucky break rather than any sort of large scale social change undercuts any potential political implications of her story, and the impossibly upbeat note the show ends on undermines the emotional effect of its atmospheric grittiness.
On the other hand, especially after a year and a half as taxing as the last one has been, seeing a scrappy underdog earn her happy ending through sheer exuberance may be, for many, exactly what the doctor ordered. And, at the moment, an ending as dismal as one might find in a more ‘believable’ orphan story might be more than most audiences could take.
Instead, the wish fulfillment fantasy Annie offers makes for a refreshing night of theatre that will keep you having fun from start to finish. And the amount of talent the mostly Miami-based cast and creative team displayed suggests that, at least for Area Stage, the sun might indeed be coming out tomorrow. If Rodaz goes on to bring his directorial gifts to scripts that are as ambitious as his interpretation of them, we could be well on our way to a future of theatre that’s far more exciting than its past. But in the meantime, if we have to keep doing old shows like Annie, we better at least keep teaching them new tricks!