You’d think audiences would be over “Annie.” The 2014 Sony update, which starred Quvenzhane Wallis and Jamie Foxx, proved underwhelming at the box office, and a lackluster 2012 revival on Broadway got panned by critics and closed in the red.
But judging from the standing ovation at the Oct. 13 performance of the national touring production (which runs at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater through Nov. 1), its charm somehow still endures — even if today’s adolescent theatergoers, coming of age in an Internet-crazed society dominated by skepticism and nihilism, might hardly recognize a world in which a plucky orphan’s optimism is enough to fetch a billionaire father and a home on Fifth Avenue.
The tour, which stars 10-year-old Issie Swickle, goes back to the 1977 musical’s roots, in a production staged by the original director and lyricist, Martin Charnin. “The thing that has kept it going and has resonated, not only with the children but with the adults, is that there is something universal about all these people,” said Charnin, who’s directed “Annie” 19 times over the years. “There are optimists in the fifth century and in the 15th century and in the 21st century, and there will always be some bully in that mix and there will always be someone who embodies all of the characteristic of the title character.”
“Annie” has proven enduringly, ubiquitously popular all over the world. In Japan, where “Annie” has been produced annually since 1980, nearly 20,000 girls turn up to audition each year. Still, Charnin continues to be amazed by the number of pint-sized actresses still angling for the part.
“Every time I have a casting call, with the world and kids changing so much over each decade, I’m curious whether or not kids are going to turn out,” he says. “And they are always lined up around the block.” In part that popularity comes from the fact that “Annie” is a perfect entree for young kids and the theater. Young actresses — including a tyke named Sarah Jessica Parker — have gotten their start in the lead role.
It’s a tough gig, requiring a child actor with a strong command of comedy and drama as well as tremendous vocal prowess. For the current production, Charnin choose Swickle from a pool of 600.
Charnin also attributes the show’s timeless appeal to a script that doesn’t pander or patronize. “The show is very respectful of kids, and they are treated in a wonderfully charming, funny, raucous kind of way,” he said. “I don’t think that just because a little seven or eight-year-old knows how to text or has a cell phone, he or she will be less enamored of seeing their counterpart up on stage.”
The young Swickle first discovered “Annie” in the 1982 movie version, which she saw when she was “really, really little.” “Now that I know the part I can really feel like I’m Annie, which makes me feel special,” she said.
The show’s optimism certainly seems to account for her own fondness for the musical. “My favorite song is ‘Tomorrow’ because she’s telling you that it will be better tomorrow,” says the actress, whose run with the show ends in December. “Everything will be OK if you just believe it. And that’s magical to me.”