Visesia Fakatoufifita as Annie at The 5th Avenue Theatre. Credit: Tracy Martin
If you love musicals, it’s hard not to love (or at least know) "Annie," now playing at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre.
When I was a kid, "Annie" was a go-to for school and youth theater performances. My own kids, members of their schools’ choirs and fans of musicals (like their mother), have sung or are familiar with most of the popular ensemble numbers, too.
More recently "Annie" became popular with a whole new generation of kids when a fresh movie remake featuring Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz and Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie hit the box office in 2014. For these reasons and more, the music to "Annie" is particularly beloved.
Case in point: As the cast sang the closing version of "Tomorrow" on the night we saw the show at The 5th, I noticed several audience members looking entranced (even emotional!) as they sang along.
The bottom line
If nostalgia is your main draw for seeing the show, then go. This production of "Annie" delivered right from the start. Visesia Fakatoufifita, who portrayed Annie the night we saw the show, particularly shined. The solos in "Annie" are quite challenging (particularly for a child performer) but Fakatoufifita held her poise and pitch, carrying several scenes with powerful performances. She hit high note after high note.
Cynthia Jones, who played Miss Hannigan, also gave a stellar performance, ushering in comic relief without resorting to the more garish representations of the character the role usually elicits.
The children’s ensemble as a whole also wowed. Their rendition of "It's a Hard Knock Life" (a favorite for my daughter and me) did not disappoint. The choreography, set design and orchestral performances also impressed.
I was also excited to see such a diverse cast for "Annie." Traditional historical considerations weren't casting limitations for this show, which was refreshing. As a child, my own mother was a performer. As a black woman, I remember many roles she was turned down for because of supposed "historical accuracy."
I was also heartened to see my daughter's eyes light up when flipping to the page of her program that highlighted the production's all-female directing team (Billie Wildrick, Caryl Fantel and Kellie Foster Warder). When I asked her before the show if she'd ever consider writing or directing a play or musical, she said no. By the show’s end she'd already changed her tune, mentioning she might suggest writing a play in her all-girls writers’ club at school. That's the power of representation and I was pleased to see The 5th showcasing such a diverse array of artists.
Parents should know
Despite being impressed with the performances, I couldn't help but wonder whether it's time to retire "Annie." Yes, representation matters. But it's not just representation that matters. Diversifying who gets to tell stories is critically important. Deciding what stories we continue to tell in the first place matters, too.
Certain character representations presented in Annie are problematic to me, even with the element of racebending modernizing aspects of its message. Some characters seemed outdated at best, and harmful caricatures at worst. Even the show's ultimate message felt a little hollow. From the mistreatment of migrant children to income inequality to growing political unrest, the parallels to our country's current political climate were impossible to ignore.
My daughter and I passed several homeless encampments on the freeway on our way to the show, and more makeshift homes in alleyways near the theater. It felt almost wrong to watch caricatured versions of "bums" represented in the show, or to feel heartened by the dancing, singing, sanitized optimistic orphans who graced the stage.
Ultimately, even the idea that one benevolent benefactor saves the day didn't feel heartening. Instead, I felt angry and outraged that a random and unlikely stroke of luck was — and remains — most neglected childrens’ best hope, even all these years later.
Of course, most folks don’t go to a holiday show expecting a political statement. I really didn’t either. But "Annie" is surprisingly political, and therefore, it was hard not to go there. If you, too, find yourself unable to shake the parallels to the present day, talk to your kids about what you saw and use it as an opportunity to discuss both current affairs and your values as a family.
If you go...
Where: "Annie" is on stage now at The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle
When: "Annie" plays almost daily through Dec. 30 with family-friendly matinee times on weekends and a couple of winter-break weekdays. Run time is 2.5 hours, including one intermission.
Age recommendation: "Annie" is a family show but note that The 5th does not permit children under age 4, including babes in arms. For more information about content, parents should consult the theater's content advisory.