by Samuel L. Leiter
I had two incentives for visiting the touring production of Annie at the Kings Theatre on Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue. One, of course, was to see the musical itself, in the company of family members and a friend; and the other, even more persuasive, was to view the incredible theatre.
First, the theatre. The Kings was built in 1929, the year the stock market crashed, and four years before Annie itself takes place. One of the grandest of the old movie palaces, it featured a French-influenced baroque style, seated 3,676, and was the jewel among a string of nearby Flatbush Avenue theatres—the Albemarle, Rialto, Astor, and Kenmore (on Church Avenue near Flatbush)—I went to during my high school and college years. Like the surrounding neighborhood, it was already turning shabby when I stopped going in the early sixties. It closed in 1977, after which it fell into serious disrepair. In recent years it was purchased by the ACE Theatrical Group, which spent $95 million to restore it to pristine condition, and re-opened in January of this year.
It’s a tired word but there few better to describe it than awesome. The marble and carpeted lobbies with their wood paneling, mirrors, faux balconies, chandeliers, formal furniture, and soaring, exquisitely lit ceilings are breathtaking. Inside, where gold-painted satyrs lurk in side alcoves, the auditorium’s sweeping scope is as eye-poppingly impressive as the world’s most grandiose cathedrals, and your eye can’t stop roaming over the intricate carvings on the pillars, ceiling, walls, and proscenium.
Like the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan, it’s a fine venue for concerts and spectacle-oriented shows, where intimacy between audiences and performers isn’t quite as important as in legitimate theatre productions. Therein, for visitors to Annie, lies the rub. Simply put, the joint’s too big. There are 39 rows of orchestra seats—A through Z, followed by a crossover aisle, and then AA through MM—with a 13-row mezzanine (balcony) directly over AA-MM. The kids in Annie must have seemed like orphanage mice to anyone seated toward the rear. And even an amplified show like this creates hearing problems for the quieter dialogue sections. Perhaps that’s why there was so much noise from bored kids running around and squealing, a disturbing problem none of the ushers (or parents) seemed willing to address.
I’m happy to report, on the other hand, that this touring production of Annie, directed by Martin Charnin, the 1977 Tony-winning show’s original director (and its lyricist), is perfectly fine, albeit not quite as visually stunning as the 2012 revival at the Palace Theatre. Beowulf Boritt’s complex sets—which depend extensively on flown-in backdrops—are built to travel, so, while they’re elaborate enough, and nicely lit by the great Ken Billington, they nonetheless show signs of having had to cut corners, especially in the big Christmas party scene. The choreography is in the very capable hands of Liza Gennaro, daughter of the original show’s great choreographer, Peter Gennaro; Suzy Benzinger’s costumes offer just what you’d expect; and Sandy the mutt has been trained by Bill Berloni, who taught the original his tricks.
A 25-member company, accompanied by a 13-piece pit orchestra, does what’s necessary to squeeze this schmaltzily endearing show for all its worth. Gilgamesh Taggett is suitably commanding as the Trump-like (sans the blond tidal wave) Daddy Warbucks; the slender Ashley Edler is an attractive Grace Fuller, Warbucks’s assistant; the lankily flexible Garrett Deagon is amusingly sleazy as Rooster Hannigan, who tries to con Annie away from Warbucks; Lucy Werner as Lily, his dumb blonde partner in crime, has her shining moments; and Jeffrey B. Duncan is a passable FDR. As the red-headed title character, 10-year-old Issie Swickle (I’m not making this up) is adorably spunky, but, vocally, she’s not quite the infant phenomenon that Andrea McArdle was in the original, nor even Taylor Richardson in the 2012 revival. The consensus in my group of five was that Lynn Andrews’s Miss Hannigan, the tippling, mean-spirited orphanage head, steals the spotlight. Andrews manages to make the character’s nastiness funny enough so we don’t really hate her, and she knows how to shake her considerable booty around with the grace of an overstuffed Giselle Kirkland.
Despite Annie’s holiday mood and its high competence, there were too many empty seats in the massive venue. Why not close off the rear sections and sell them only when those parts closer to the stage are filled? If the Kings wants to draw audiences to straight theatre like Annie, it should think again about how best to make the experience fulfilling for everyone. And if there are going to be noisy kids, let them be the ones on stage, not in the audience!
Interior: NYC Mayors Office
Photos by Samuel L. Leiter