LET'S GET a few things straight right off. I am not now nor have I ever been Ebenezer Scrooge, Scrooge McDuck or the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. And I don't sit at parties with a lampshade on my head. I am simply someone with strong reservations about a show called "Annie."
You remember "Annie." That's the musical that broke the switchboard at the Kennedy Center, that's created such a remarkable frenzy among theatergoers that the Eisenhower temporarily ran out of programs. If you are miserable because you didn't get in, don't be: "Annie" isn't a whole New Deal, it's just another dose of Normalcy.
As an old comic page reader, I had my doubts about "Annie" from the start. Would it be possible to make a musical from a strip that Maurice Horn, the comics authority, characterizes as "a dark parable of Good and Evil, a brooding metaphor of life, in which all characters took on a translucence of symbols, and all situations become permeated with a haunting sense of betrayal and doom." It certainly didn't sound like a lot of laughs. "Annie's" creators, however, have done their best to lighten the mood. Gone without a trace is the sinister Punjab and the even more sinister Asp. The strip's crafty heroine has been turned into a relentless cheerful Goody Two-Shoes, and they've even, for gosh sakes, changed Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks, the original old curmudgeon, into a blubbering, bleeding-heart liberal and given him a svelte young secretary. But I expected all that. This is a musical, after all, not a psychodrama.
And for a musical "Annie" does have some nice touches. The scenery is fanciful, evel elegant. Dorothy Loudon is nifty as the nasty Miss Hannigan, the scourge of the orphanage, and there are even two honest-to-goodness good numbers: the raucous "Easy Street" and a rollicking dance version of "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," starring Tessie, Molly, Kate, Pepper, Duffy and July, Annie's little orphan pals.
The cuteness and professionalism of these tykes, who taken all together probably have as much theatrical experience as George Burns, is very hard to resist, and it is just that irresistibility that points up what is wrong with "Annie."
For the show cannily and unashamedly trades on the innate appeal of children, not to mention the appeal of children and a dog, and uses that to mask a variety of sins. Who, after all, would dare quibble with such a adorable mites giving their all up on stage. Quite frankly, "Annie" counts heavily on your feeling that way. It's success is all created with mirrors, a slick Potemkin village with absolutely nothing behind its facade.
The basic problem is that "Annie" is a show in which nothing happens, period. At its worst it's a collection of numbers linked together like so much popcorn on a string - three hours of gaudy trimmings that, no matter how artfully done, suffer from te lack of a tree to hang them on.
Theoretically, at least, musicals are supposed to have what is known as a "book," which means a plot. "Annies" plot turns out to be based on her search for her real parents, and since everyone in America must know by now that Annie never found her real parents, more than a little edge is taken off of things right from the start.
As "Annie" unfolds through hour after hour with the painful slowness of a rheumatic stripper, we realize that its creators have attempted to remedy this lack with a series of painfully transparent, theorectically suspenseful, devices whose outcome any child could predict without difficulty. Try these on for size:
Will Sandy, Annie's new-found dog, answer when she calls his name or be dragged a way to the pound and perdition by a nasty policeman?
Will Miss Farrell, Oliver Warbucks' ritzy secretary, pick Annie as the orphan deemed worthy to spend Christmas with Warbucks, and how will nasty Miss Hannigan ever permit her to go?
Will Annie and Warbucks get along?
The lamest device, however, is saved for the end. For what seems like forever, we are forced to watch a con man and his frail try to convince Warbucks that they are Raplh and Shirley Mudge, Annie's doddering real-life parents and the deserving recipients of a $50,000 reward. From the monent they totter onto the stage, we know exactly what the outcome of their shyster routine will be, yet we are forced to sit through this most painful of defused timebombs not once but twice. There oughta be a law.
"Annie" does, as noted, have its vitures; however these are very much the virtures of slightness, the small pleasures that come with a show whose characters are, if you can believe it, noticeably less spunky, less substantial even, than the comic strip folk they're based on. One does not so much dislike "Annie" as wonder how it became such a smash, wonder why audiences go as mad for this trifle as they undenuably do.
The answer, I'm afraid, is that "Annie" is the sensation it is just because it is so godawful predictable. No dirty words will sneak up and bite you in this production, no untoward shocks will catch Front Porch America by surprise.
More and more, the mainstream theatrical audience, especially in Washington, seems to be opting for blandness, for something, anything, that will not make them squirm or disturb their digestion. Even the blood-strained Romeo & Juliet plot of "West Side Story" might be too much today. It's a very understandable desire, but unfortunately it leads to namby-pamby productions like "Annie," which in its overwhelming desire to cover all the bases and make things as cushy for the audience as humanly possible, ends up with a dramatic inertness unusual even for a musical.
In the land of the bland, a musical about a girl with no eyes would just about have to be king.