When the calendar flips to December, something in our collective psyche seems to demand nostalgia. And not just nostalgia, but nostalgia about nostalgia.
Give us “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Give us 24 straight hours of “A Christmas Story” to remind us of when we watched “A Christmas Story” as kids. Give us Peanuts characters skating to Vince Guaraldi and endless Ebenezer Scrooges and all those Whos down in Whoville, again and again. And don’t stop until 2016.
The programming wizards at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, perfectly aware of their audience’s seasonal demand for the familiar old stories, chose their annual holiday-themed production wisely with a plucky and engaging tour of “Annie” that opened Dec. 8.
The classic 1976 show, though we don’t typically think of it as an intrinsically holiday-themed story, falls directly in the December sweet spot of the family audiences that are increasingly becoming Shea’s bread and butter. If you want to live in the warm glow of old memories, or introduce your kids to new ones, you could do a lot worse than this touring production, which was directed by its original director and lyricist Martin Charnin to be as faithful to the original production as possible.
Troika Entertainment’s current non-union tour is a de facto repudiation of tepidly received 2012 Broadway production directed by James Lapine, which attempted to bring more emotional depth to the story’s charming caricatures than some critics and audiences seemed to appreciate. But there was no need to go all “Breaking Bad” on these particular comic book characters, whose strength lies not in their complexity but in their two-dimensional accessibility.
The strength of the show, as Charnin clearly understands, is in its uncomplicated presentation of broad archetypes broadcasting intentionally straightforward ideas about optimism, deception, love and redemption. Those seeking deep emotional complexity are advised to find the nearest Sondheim production.
As for “Annie,” this tour hits all the right musical and emotional notes even if not always at the perfect volume. It unfolds on excellent sets and backdrops by Beowulf Boritt that avoid technical bells and whistles and stick to time-tested craftsmanship, refreshing in this age of busy video projections and other gimmicks.
In the title role, Issie Swickle gives technically proficient performances of the songs that occupy such a large part of young musical theater fans’ DNA. Charles Strouse’s gorgeous opening ballad, “Maybe,” certainly the most beautiful melody in the show, comes across here with much of the yearning it seems to require. “Tomorrow,” which Swickle sings with perfect form but a few milligrams less emotional engagement than you might hope for alongside her canine friend Sandy in one scene and in the company of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in another, is more than likely to satisfy any sticklers in the crowd.
But it is Swickle’s energetic cast-mates, young and old, who truly bring this production to life. Chief among them is Lynn Andrews as Miss Hannigan, who colors her outlandishly fiendish portrayal as the opportunistic orphanage director with just the slightest suggestion of vulnerability and brings the house down with her tortured version of “Little Girls.” She also owns the stage alongside a gifted Garrett Deagon as the vile Rooster Hannigan and Lucy Werner as Lily in “Easy Street,” Strouse and Charnin’s irresistibly indulgent commentary on the get-rich-quick ethos of disreputable characters.
Annie’s spirited fellow orphans shine whenever they appear, dutifully turning themselves into a swirl of swinging pigtails and jaunty arm-swings, an ad-hoc kick-line or a troupe of pint-sized improv comedians as the occasion demands. Their performances in “It’s the Hard Knock Life” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” are saturated with charm and add new and important layers to the protagonist’s impossible optimism.
As Oliver Warbucks, the billionaire who takes Annie in to his world of unlimited privilege, Gilgamesh Taggett gives a convincing of a cold, conservative heart melting into broader generosity. If your heart doesn’t grow three sizes when he performs “I Don’t Need Anything But You” along with Swickle and the lovely Ashley Edler (as Grace Farrell), you may want to have it checked.
Aside from a little trouble with the sets opening night and the odd emotional weak spot, this “Annie” hits the audience right where it aims to, satisfying our annual appetite for holiday nostalgia and sending us out into the streets with a song in our heads.
3 stars (Out of four)
When: Through Sunday
Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.
Tickets: $35 to $75
Info: 847-1410 or sheas.org