Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

5th Avenue Theatre
Review by David Edward Hughes

Cynthia Jones, Cheyenne Casebier,
and Dane Stokinger

Photo by Tracy Martin
Remember overtures at musicals? They had virtually disappeared by 1977 when the musical version of the Sunday comics classic "Little Orphan Annie" (which itself ran from 1924-2010), retitled simply Annie, leapt from page to the Broadway stage. A plaintive trumpet solo of "Tomorrow," the show's biggest hit song (ultimately an anthem for the Carter White House by veteran composer Charles Strouse), leads into a great Ralph Burns orchestration of the musical holiday feast to come. Shortened and/or cut from many productions in the 42 years since, the full overture launches the 5th Avenue Theatre's sparkling, heart on its sleeve holiday attraction into the stratosphere. It's one of the best damn musical productions I've seen in 30 years reviewing shows on Seattle stages.

Martin Charnin, lyricist and Broadway director of the show, convinced Strouse and ace bookwriter Thomas Meehan that the show could work, and after a shaky out of town start in 1976, then the recasting of the two lead female roles (Annie and orphanage matron Miss Hannigan), it opened to rave reviews on Broadway, won seven Tony Awards and stands as the 26th longest Broadway running show of all time (tied with the revival of Cabaret). The creators wisely opted to tell an Annie origin story, with only Annie and Oliver Warbucks (plus Sandy) remaining from the strip.

Just one of the girls in a circa December 1933 New York City orphanage, run like a workhouse by the child-hating, gin-guzzling Miss Hannigan, Annie has half a locket and a letter from her parents who left her as a baby at the orphanage. She is picked by billionaire financial mogul Oliver Warbucks' personal secretary Grace to stay at her boss' swanky Manhattan estate for two weeks leading up to Christmas. Her plucky but streetwise attitude captures the hearts of all Warbucks' staff, and even that of the crusty billionaire himself, who launches a campaign to find Annie's folks, even taking her to Washington D.C., where FDR himself puts the FBI on it. Hannigan, her nefarious brother Rooster, and his floozy girlfriend are plotting against Annie, but—oh, heck, you know any show that ends with a song called "New Deal For Christmas" is bound to end optimistically.

Billie Wildrick, who makes her 5th Avenue directorial without reinventing or trying to fix a show that ain't broken, and her (mostly local) cast offer a hand-picked candy box of delights throughout. That little curly-headed title character is brought to life in a beguiling, saccharine-free performance by Visesia Fakatoufifita (Faith Young alternates in the role), whose "Tomorrow" and other featured vocals rival that of Broadway original Andrea McArdle. Timothy McCuen Piggee is "Daddy" Warbucks in an outstanding and very human performance, and his tender "Something Was Missing" delivered to Annie is beautifully modulated, shifting from a stunning falsetto to a bold baritone. Cynthia Jones' Miss Hannigan hits the stage like a hurricane hitting the Big Apple, getting all her big laughs, yet showing just enough human frailty and pathos to balance the character. Her delivery of "Little Girls" is a master class in how to sell a comedy song, and when triple threats Dane Stokinger and Cheyenne Casebier show up as Rooster and Lily, they team with Jones for a rousing and robust "Easy Street." The role of Grace is the least well developed in the script and score, but the radiant as always Jessica Skerritt never saw a role she couldn't improve upon, and she sure does it in this case.

The orphans ensemble is strong all the way, not only socking all their songs across like pros to be, but handling Kelli Foster Warder's sassy and athletic choreography as smoothly as the adult ensemble. I was particularly captivated by Bea Corley's salty Pepper, and by a crafty little scene-stealer named Olivia Juarez in the role of littlest orphan Molly. The adult featured and ensemble roles are inhabited by the kind of actors I admire most, who are proud to be working actors, whether in leads or support, and Anne Allgood, Cayman Ilika and John Patrick Lowrie as Warbucks' housekeeper, cook and butler, I'm singling you out. In the featured turn as the Star to Be, Lauren DuPree's big solo in the "N.Y.C." production number shines even more than the Chrysler Building. Matt Wolfe plays half of Manhattan, most notably disappearing into the small Irish cop role, and bringing out his musical comedy chops as radio singer Bert Healy in "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile." Veteran Annie dog trainer William Berloni's sweet pups Macy and Sunny both appear in each performance, alternating as Sandy and Third Dog to the Left.

Caryl Fantel's musical direction and conducting of a bountiful big-Broadway-sound orchestra couldn't be bettered. Noted Broadway scenic designer Beowulf Borritt's work is handsomely crafted as well as swift and safe-moving. Suzy Benzinger and Leon Dobkowski's costume designs are as natty as they are numerous, Mary Louise Geiger's lighting design is top drawer, and longtime 5th Avenue hair and wig designer Mary Pyanowski Jones always delivers the goods, the bigger the show the better.

This Annie is definitely a true family show, whether yours be biological or chosen. Don't go by any of the three inferior movie versions—here's the real deal, as good as it gets, and an honor to its creators!

Annie, through December 30, 2018, at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue between Union and University, Seattle WA. For tickets and information, contact the 5th Avenue box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at