Thursday, January 14, 2016

Cleveland’s “Daddy Warbucks” comes home in ANNIE tour at Conner Palace Theatre

Gilgamesh Taggett has made a name for himself on the Cleveland theater scene in a variety of roles.  Two times he received praise for his portrayal of Oliver Warbucks on stage at Beck Center.  Taggett again finds himself playing Daddy Warbucks, but this time, in a touring production of ANNIE, now on stage at the Connor Palace.              

How did he transfer from local celebrity to national recognition?  As Taggett tells it, a friend, who was part of the casting team, gave him a call that the national tour of ANNIE was seeking a Warbucks.

He went to New York, met the casting directors, and tried out before Martin Charnin, who wrote the script’s lyrics, Charles Strouse, the music’s composer, and music supervisor Keith Levenson.  And, voilà, the fullback-sized, bald, Taggett, who has a large voice, a dynamic stage presence, and reeks of gruff kindness, found himself on the road in the role. 

The script is based on the long running Harold Gray comic strip, “Little Orphan Annie,” which premiered in the 1920s, and became one of the most widely read comics.

The musical is the result of Charnin receiving a copy of “The Life and Hard Times of Little Orphan Annie,” falling in love with the story, and obtaining the rights to transform it into a musical.  He enlisted Tony winning composer Strouse to write the music, and short story writer, Thomas Meehan, to fashion the book.

In 1976, after the script had been rejected by 23 producers, ANNIE was tried out at East Haddam, Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House, the incubator home to some of Broadway’s biggest musicals (e.g., MAN OF LAMANCHA and SHENANDOAH.) After numerous changes it opened in 1977 on Broadway. 

ANNIE went on to win 7 Tony Awards with a cast that included Reid Shelton (Warbucks), Dorothy Loudon (Miss Hannigan), and Andrea McArdle (Annie).  The canine who played Sandy became the “longest running dog on Broadway, and never missed a performance.  The show is now the 13 th longest running American musical in Broadway history and has been revived on Broadway twice (1997 and 2012).

The score, which is hummable and moves the plot along includes such classics as, “Tomorrow,” “Maybe,” “Little Girls,” “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” “N.Y.C,”  “Annie,” and “I Don’t Need Anything But You.”  It has such show stoppers as “Easy Street,” “We’d Like to Thank You,” and “A New Deal for Christmas.”

The musical is the back story of how Annie was left outside a New York orphanage during the depression and continues to hope that her parents will come back for here.  Spunky Annie resists the efforts of ill-tempered Miss Hannigan, the facility’s director, to break her will.  Annie escapes in a laundry bag, and wanders the streets of the Big Apple in an attempt to find her parents.  In the process she saves Sandy, a scruffy dog, from going to the kennels, hangs out with homeless people, and avoids attempts to catch her, but finally is brought back to the orphanage. 

Ironically, in an act of goodwill, Oliver Warbucks, the richest man in America, has sent Grace Farrell, his secretary, to bring an orphan to his Park Avenue home for the holidays.  Annie is the pick.  After an awkward start to their relationship, Warbucks falls in love with the red-headed darling and after some plot twists and turns, winds up adopting her.  

The touring company, directed by lyricist Martin Charnin, is a nicely conceived, though it has become somewhat tired and lacks spontaneity.   This is to be expected from a cast who has been on the road well for over a year and finds itself  shifting from theatre to theatre after very short stays.  The Cleveland stop is only 6 days.

The songs are delightful, the dancing adequately well executed but uncreative, and the sets (especially the cityscapes) nicely conceived.

Though the younger set has no point of reference for the comic strip, which stopped publication in 2010, the depression, and references to the likes of Francis Perkins, Bernard Baruch, Don Budge, Babe Ruth, and Mahatma Gandhi, based on the interest level of the cherubs around me, it seems to make little difference.

Taggett is excellent as Warbucks…he sings, he dances and he charms with ease.  Heidi Gray, who is fairly new in the role, doesn’t quite have the encompassing-presence needed for the making of a great Annie, but has the singing and dancing skills to pull off  the role.  Though seemingly on automatic pilot with every move and vocal sound down pat, Lynn Andrews is fun as the mean Miss Hannigan, Chloe Tiso is beautiful and appealing as Grace Farrell, Brendan Malafronte has fun as Bert Healy, and Garrett Deagon is properly slimy as Rooster.  The orphans are cute, but their major song and dance number, “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” was too formulaic and lacked dynamism.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  How can one not like a story about an orphan kid who finds herself being adopted by a billionaire, a stray dog who is saved from the pound, a billionaire with a heart, a bunch of singing and dancing orphans, and a female villain who gets her due  punishment?  Add fine singing, some fun comedy shticks, and clear characterizations.  Leapin’ Lizards, even if it’s a little tired, you’ll probably like seeing “ANNIE, ANNIE, ANNIE!”

Tickets for ANNIE, which runs through January 17, 2016 at the Connor Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to