Visesia Fakatoufifita, 11, plays Annie in half the performances. She is paired onstage with a dog named Sunny, who plays the canine character Sandy.
Visesia Fakatoufifita, 11, plays Annie in half the performances. She is paired onstage with a dog named Sunny, who plays the canine character Sandy. Photo by Tracy Martin/Courtesy of 5th Avenue Theatre

Let's face it: Annie is a cornball, feel-good, family-friendly holiday musical. It is the Forrest Gump of musicals. Its famous songs include "You're Never Fully Dressed without a Smile" and (the sun'll come out!) "Tomorrow."

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And yet, for all its peppiness, it's hard to do well. It's hard to create a production that isn't screechy or treacly. And because the show relies on child actors and live dogs (flying in the face of W.C. Fields's famous adage, "Never work with children or animals") there are so many things that can go wrong.

Visesia Fakatoufifita and Faith Young alternate in the title role. Young, on the right, has her own dog named Macy she performs with. Theres a breakdown of which actor performs Annie in each show date here.
Visesia Fakatoufifita and Faith Young alternate in the title role. Young, on the right, has her "own" dog named Macy she performs with. Photo by Mark Kitaoka/Courtesy of 5th Avenue Theatre

But the 5th Avenue's Annie is sensational. It is miraculously non-screechy and non-treacly and just overall legitimately surprisingly good. It hits a lot of different notes.

The scenic design (by Beowulf Boritt) is impressive and transporting. The choreography (by Kelli Foster Warder) is amazing—full of unexpected moves and bodily humor that almost reminded me of Fosse. And everything (the costumes, the wigs, the lights) has been designed from scratch. It will not remind you of other productions you've seen.

It is a credit to the director Billie Wildrick (who's usually one of the actors onstage—this is her directorial debut at the 5th Avenue) that all of these elements come together as successfully as they do. In act one I was laughing, and in act two I had tears trembling in my eyes. I had such a genuine human experience with this show, I felt like I was seeing it for the first time. My date had stars in her eyes.

The secret weapon in this production is Timothy McCuen Piggee as Oliver Warbucks.
The secret weapon in this production is Timothy McCuen Piggee, on the right, as Oliver Warbucks. Photo by Tracy Martin/Courtesy of 5th Avenue Theatre

In addition to so much of the responsibility for the show working resting with children and dogs, there is also the matter of some of the adult characters being kind of... well, boring. Warbucks is a sap. All he wants is a kid he can spoil and treat well. Yawn. But Timothy McCuen Piggee grants the character liveliness and believability, somehow graduating Warbucks from sappiness into poignancy. On first glance, Warbucks is a hardened industrialist Republican who wants to adopt a boy, but over time that hardened exterior melts as he and Annie hit it off. Piggee and Fakatoufifita have genuine onstage chemistry with each other (as you can see in that photo above).

And Fakatoufifita is no slouch in the acting department. One of the things in act one that made me laugh was watching her imitate Warbucks as he paced around in his den. (I'm told Faith Young is a fantastic as well; the two of them beat out 500 other actors for this role. You can see a breakdown of which Annie performs when here.)

Cynthia Jones as Miss Hannigan (left), Cheyenne Casebier as Lily St. Regis (center), and Dane Stokinger as Rooster Hannigan (right).
Cynthia Jones as Miss Hannigan (left), Cheyenne Casebier as Lily St. Regis (center), and Dane Stokinger as Rooster Hannigan (right). Photo by Tracy Martin/Courtesy of 5th Avenue Theatre

The one quibble audiences may have is that Cynthia Jones, as Miss Hannigan, is not Carol Burnett. But there is only one Carol Burnett, and she was born the year this musical is set (1933), and she's busy. Jones deserves credit for taking her interpretation in a completely different direction, even if she didn't get as many laughs as other Miss Hannigans have. This Miss Hannigan is cool and charismatic and has great pipes.

Still, I was laughing all over the place. It's a good show. Bring the kids.

Annie plays at 5th Avenue Theatre through December 30.