Christine Dolen

‘Annie’ and her optimism return to the Broward Center

Gilgamesh Taggett as Oliver Warbucks celebrates with Issie Swickle as Annie in the new touring production of ‘Annie’ at the Broward Center.
Gilgamesh Taggett as Oliver Warbucks celebrates with Issie Swickle as Annie in the new touring production of ‘Annie’ at the Broward Center. Joan Marcus

So here’s a fact to make you feel old: Andrea McArdle, the first young actress to don a red dress and curly wig as title character in Annie on Broadway, turns 51 on Nov.5.

Time does march on. But Annie? She’s the same plucky, inspiring, Depression-era orphan that she was when her eponymous Broadway musical opened on April 21, 1977.

Annie, with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin and a book by Thomas Meehan, has been around ever since. Its original Broadway run lasted 2,377 performances. It came back to Broadway in 1997 and (as a considerably darker show) in 2012, toured and was produced all over the world, was made into movies in 1982 and 1999. A contemporary Annie movie, starring Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis and Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, hits theaters the week before Christmas.

Enduring and beloved, Annie has hit the road again, and the show will open the 2014-2015 Broadway in Fort Lauderdale season at 8p.m. Tuesday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.

The newest incarnation of the musical inspired by Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie comic strip is in the steady hands of Charnin, its lyricist and original director. And getting her big break in the title role is Issie Swickle, a 9-year-old Davie resident who has taken a pass on her fourth-grade year at Fox Trail Elementary School to live one of her many showbiz dreams.

Charnin, an Emmy-winning writer and director who played one of the Jets in the original production of West Side Story, has firm ideas about Annie, the most successful of his many shows.

“This is my 19th time directing it,” Charnin says. “Over the course of the years, it morphs into different kinds of events. Sometimes, I discover it’s drifted so far away from its original intentions, I have to bring it back. ... This is more like the original.”

Speaking during the show’s tryout run in Utica, New York, Charnin adds that making Annie work is a matter of tone.

“I’m trying to restore its heart and soul. Annie has its own innate darkness, but it is funny, and it has a giant heart,” he says. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The love has to be the foremost aspect of it.”

Actor Gilgamesh Taggett, who plays billionaire Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks in this non-Equity touring production, agrees that love is the key to Annie.

“Oliver Warbucks grew up poor and was orphaned by the age of 10, so all he’s ever cared about is making money. He had everything he thought he wanted or needed,” Taggett says.

“Then this little girl with the same can-do spirit he has comes into his life. She’s so full of pluck, and relentless about the idea of finding her parents. So all of these elements come together in the honest and pure love of a child. The true love story of Annie is the love Warbucks has for her and she for him. It’s a family coming together. It inspires people.”

Swickle, a singer-dancer-actress who has performed with Davie’s Broadway Kids Studio and the Pembroke Pines Theater for the Performing Arts, is on the road with her mother Dana while her father holds down the fort at home with her older brother Max — who will experience his Bar Mitzvah while Annie is running in Fort Lauderdale.

The young star, who had to cut her brown hair and get it dyed red to play Annie, calls Charnin “a big Teddy Bear” but adds that he knows the show like no one else.

“He’s a great director. He’s very strict, but he created everything about the way Annie feels. He’s very connected to the show,” says Swickle, who dreams of becoming a pop star and doing her own stunts in action movies.

Her on-the-road activities include knitting, trying out different amusement parks and, with her fellow “orphans,” getting tutored at least three hours a day. And though she misses her friends at home, she says, “It’s worth it, because I get to be Annie.”

Taggett, who made his stage debut at age 10, knows how Swickle feels.

“This is my first tour, and I could not have hit the jackpot more,” he says. “I’m a 35-year overnight success story.”

For his part, Charnin is delighted with his new Annie.

“Issie has spunk. She’s very smart and has a real good attitude. She can play the optimistic side of Aannie but can give us depth and warmth without it being maudlin,” he says. “And she’s young. I can keep her in the show longer. The girls playing Annie have these growth spurts. There’s only so much hem you can let out of a dress.”

This time around, Annie has some new elements, including a set by Tony Award-winner Beowulf Boritt, costumes by Blue Jasmine designer Suzy Benzinger and lighting by Tony winner Ken Billington.

But what hasn’t changed, Charnin believes, are the qualities that have made Annie meaningful to multiple generations.

Annie is about very universal things. Very often, optimism is in short supply in our lives. What Annie is about is even more relevant now. We’re trying to provide an antidote for cynicism,” he says. “It’s an enormous piece of theater. It will outlive me and my kids. It’s in a class that very few musicals are in. There’s something eternal about Annie.”

If you go

What: ‘Annie’ by Martin Charnin, Charles Strouse and Thomas Meehan.

Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.

When: 2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 19 (additional 2 p.m. show Oct. 15, no evening show Oct. 19).

Cost: $34.75-$100.01.

Information: 954-462-0222 or www.browardcenter.org.

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