A search for family propels “Annie,” the 1977 Broadway musical inspired by the Depression-era comic strip “Little Orphan Annie.” In a weekend staging at the Hollywood Bowl, that came to mean several things.
By the end of this inquisitive if ultimately conventional presentation, the audience at Friday’s first performance found itself in the lap of a large and loving nuclear family while more broadly connecting with a sense of America as one big household.
Diverse and inclusive, the cast reflected the nation at large, peopled with such recognizable names as David Alan Grier, Lea Salonga, Ana Gasteyer, Amir Talai, Megan Hilty and Roger Bart, as well as wheelchair-using actress Ali Stroker. The range of orphans — the title character and six other girls — was equally sweeping.
Presented through Sunday as the Bowl’s annual musical, the show was directed by Michael Arden, who has brought similarly all-embracing approaches to the most recent Tony winner for musical revival, “Once on This Island,” as well as a Deaf-and-hearing rendition of “Spring Awakening” in L.A. and New York and an age- and race-diverse presentation of “Merrily We Roll Along” in L.A.
Casting a wide net in his search for child actors, Arden posted a YouTube video in April inviting submissions from 6- to 13-year-olds, who were asked to upload performance videos for evaluation. He got close to 650 responses.
The Annie chosen was 10-year-old Kaylin Hedges of suburban New York, who has been acting since age 6 and performed the role last year with a professional company in New York’s Westchester County.
Her voice was like the sunshine promised in “Tomorrow,” the show’s most famous song. Pure and powerful, it rang across the hillside, pinging especially nicely on long-held high notes.
The story’s backdrop at the Bowl was Annie’s name spelled out in gigantic, three-dimensional letters, rendered in the comic’s distinctive font. The orchestra was placed in a metal musicians’ balcony behind this alphabet land. As the show progressed, the letters were turned on their sides to form doorways and alcoves or flipped around to reveal settings in their hollow insides. (The show’s design is by Dane Laffrey.)
The score — by composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin — evokes such Depression-era sounds as jazz and vaudeville, as well as novelty songs and patriotic tunes. Todd Ellison conducted 19 musicians, as in the original Broadway production.
When music was playing, the presentation sparkled. Voices were energized, and choreographer Eamon Foley had the orphans percussively slapping the floor with cleaning rags in “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” and delivering flapperish kicks, a bit of folk dancing and a mini-Rockettes line in “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.”
Dialogue scenes, on the other hand, seemed flat and characterizations superficial. The book by Thomas Meehan and his collaborators is a lot like a cartoon. Plot motivation is sketchy; messaging is kept simple and endlessly repeated. Strong, inventive performances are needed to lend dimension and pizzazz to the material.
But, hey, who am I to argue with success? The show ran nearly six years in its initial Broadway run and has become a national staple. Kids love it, and Friday’s audience included a fair number of children, especially girls in tulle princess skirts or party dresses.
Inspired by the Harold Gray comic strip, “Annie” is set in Depression-strapped 1933 and follows its title character through New York as she shares a message of hope, bringing out the best in people. Well, maybe not in foul-tempered, child-hating orphanage manager Miss Hannigan, but certainly in billionaire businessman Oliver Warbucks, whose mansion Annie is invited to visit during the Christmas holiday.
The youngest cast members stole hearts right and left on Friday, notably 7-year-old Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, a comic spitfire, as Molly.
As Miss Hannigan, Gasteyer sang in a rich, characterful mezzo soprano with a streetwise New York accent layered on top. The audience enjoyed her boozy disdain and her youngster-induced screams of frustration.
Grier lent the stuffy, business-focused Warbucks an animated, resonant baritone with a touch of jazz in it, helping us to understand how Annie so instinctively sees the fun in him. Salonga, portraying Warbucks’ trusty secretary, sounded radiant.
Kids in the audience wouldn’t have noticed, but adults might have been struck by the different ways parts of the 41-year-old show resonate nowadays. The sight of children corralled together, crying in the night for absent parents, brought to mind our current news cycle. So did a Hooverville of stressed, angry Americans.
And then there were contrasts: Eager to get his factories reopened, billionaire Republican Warbucks is willing to work with Democratic New Dealers to give the populace a path to reemployment. Later, this opinionated deal-maker cozies up to the FBI, in which he has unwavering trust.
As Annie likes to say: Leapin’ lizards! This is our family, all right — plenty messy, but varied, tenacious and full of hope.
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Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday; ends Sunday
Tickets: $14-$144; subject to inventory
Info: (323) 850-2000, www.hollywoodbowl.com