Certainly the fanfare that surrounds the Philippines staging of “Annie” (Full House Theater Company) is not without reason. It launched Lea Salonga into the iconic performer we know her to be in the present, the 2014 film version—reconfiguration, actually—was a box-office success, and the songs endure regardless of the almost four decades since its first staging as Broadway musical in 1977.
This is of course a double-edged sword for this production. On the one hand, there is a young audience that might expect to see a reconfiguration ala Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx; on the other, there is an adult audience that might enjoy the political commentary and propaganda that was apparently in the original version. This is a pretty huge divide that this production now needs to contend with, after the joy that was gala night.
Precocious kids on overdrive
The cast of “Annie” can only be divided between the orphanage and the rest of New York, the crises of these orphans relative to the poverty and depression — and the wealth of one Oliver Warbucks (Michael de Mesa) —outside. The kids are dirty and unkempt, and while they feared Miss Hannigan, they also played pranks on and made fun of her, which only works because the kids functioned as ensemble.
For this cast, Molly (Cheska Rojas) shone not because she was one of the littlest girls, but also because she was the one with impeccable timing, and as such was the best tiny-person-nemesis of Miss Hannigan (Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo). Otherwise, save for Cydel Gabutero (Pepper) whose few solo singing lines resonated, the kids were quite difficult to tell apart from each other.
Together, the kids worked perfectly, functioning as they should: the bane of Miss Hannigan’s existence, playful and mischievous, rebellious as only misbehaving kids can be. There is also a kindness about them, which shines through when they can’t help but cheer on the fact that Annie was going to get out of the orphanage, even if it meant they were going to get stuck where they were.
It is worth mentioning that this could not have been the easiest part of the cast to block and choreograph, yet the able adult hands of choreographer and director were not just able to control the giddiness, it also allowed for the fun and enjoyment to play out. All in all, pretty good children’s theater with little of the apprehension and nervousness, and more of the confidence of, and in, ensemble work. Also just utterly enjoyable.
Annie number one
Two actresses play Annie for this production, and given the musical version, there is little to judge Annie by in relation to the kids in the cast. After the first 30 minutes she is actually removed from the orphanage and becomes part of the adult household and life of Warbucks, cared for by servants (an ensemble in itself) and Miss Grace Farrell (Jill Peña), Warbucks’ assistant. In that adult space, Annie becomes just a kid, drowned out in the concerns of adults and the outside world.
Where we might expect more scenes with Annie and the kids (going to the movies, playing in the mansion) those moments are not here at all. This means more pressure for Annie (played on Gala Night by Isabeli Araneta Elizalde), to remain within the narrative, rise to the occasion of the adult world, and not disappear into the big bad world outside the orphanage. Where there is a feistiness and rebellion in Annie while she was inside the orphanage, that daring is all but lost in the course of her stay with Warbucks. This is not the fault at all of the actress who played her, but the material itself forced the Annie from the orphanage to disappear into the Annie living in a mansion. There is little of the mischief or curiosity that one would think a little girl discovering a new life would have.
Elizalde though survives this narrative with flying colors, not just because of her charm, but also because she has the singing chops to see Annie through her iconic songs. It might be my age—or maybe the state of the nation?—but that moment when she sings “Tomorrow” upon meeting Sandy for the first time, that moment had me tearing up.
The risk of narrative
It is unclear to me whether or not local stagings are disallowed completely from touching original work such as “Annie,” but if the point is to bring kids into the theater, then swifter storytelling is in order. After all, too much of the humor is old, and many of the punchlines don’t work anymore. The funniest parts were about the kids (and that moment with Reb Atadero as servant doing a grand reveal of the “Mona Lisa” to Oliver Warbucks).
It might also help to actually already decide that the audience of “Annie” are kids, so while the material is heavily contextualized in 1930s America, the historical context might be told differently on those large screens during Overture. Say, focus on the more dominant concepts that kids understand: there was a time when America was poor, when few people had jobs, and kids were left by their parents in orphanages. Use a storyteller’s voice: this is the story of little orphan Annie, her time at the orphanage, her search for her parents, her optimism and hope.
All the bits about Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt barely matter—those are names that will go over the kids heads anyway. The staging could also use a faster pace, taking its cue from the quick-wit and sharp timing of the kids relative to Miss Hannigan.
A first time with Full House
Where the material might fail, the rest of the ensemble and production does not. De Mesa’s Warbucks could’ve used a little more charisma, a little less indignation, though his acting chops through “Why Should I Change A Thing?” allows his humanity to shine through. There was also little by way of establishing a “relationship” with Miss Farrell here, which is a shame because Jill Peña’s version of this character is not only powerful and feisty, she also provides the kindness that balances out Annie’s experiences as orphan. It is Lauchengco-Yulo’s Miss Hannigan that will make you want to watch this show again, where her “Little Girls” was both funny and sad, a paean to a life she never got to live, proof of how even she was stuck where she was—just like everybody else. Her depressed drunkard Hannigan is so on point, it would put Cameron Diaz to shame.
The production is pretty solid, and with a large set like that of Newport Performing Arts Theater, so many things can go wrong (on Gala Night, there seemed little control over the lighting, though that can be easily remedied).
A Full House Theater Company virgin, watching “Annie” was like seeing Repertory Philippines on steroids. And with a creative team that knows taste and control (Michael Williams, Lauchengco-Yulo), this could only be a good thing.
I might be the worst person to review “Annie,” seeing as I’m from the generation of kids who remember Salonga playing Annie — and how would anyone measure against that, nostalgia notwithstanding. But one finds there is value in teaching a new generation of kids about sadness and poverty, and the importance of hope in the midst.
In third world Philippines in 2016, that might be Annie’s reason for being.
It is of course enough. * * *
“Annie,” with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin, and book by Thomas Meehan, is directed by Michael Stuart Williams, musical direction by Maestro Rodel Colmenar, scenic design by Faust Peneyra, and choreography by Nancy Crowe. It is produced by Full House Theater Company, and will run all weekends until December 4.