Nov 8, 2012
Could the timing be any better for a Broadway revival of Annie? The uplifting musical sells not only the archetypal rags-to-riches fantasy but promotes belief in the power of government to deliver us from economic hardship. At a time when many New Yorkers are still reclaiming their homes in the wake of last week’s Atlantic superstorm, the show’s depiction of the city as a bastion of resilience, even amid Depression-era woes, carries special resonance. Throw in an adorable mutt named Sandy, of all things, and you have a handy remedy for both election fatigue and hurricane hangover.
While it downplays the comic-strip origins in subtle ways, James Lapine’s production sensibly chooses not to reinvent the 1977 musical, which won seven Tony Awards and ran for close to six years its first time around. Returning to Broadway almost three decades later, this enduring ode to optimism remains a sterling example of expert musical-theater craftsmanship. It has an engaging Dickensian book by Thomas Meehan and a string of infectious tunes by Charles Strouse with flavorful lyrics by Martin Charnin, their songs adopting a 1930s vernacular tailored to the story’s setting.
For some of us who experienced the show in its infancy, over-exposure gradually turned its sunny anthems to cloying treacle. By the time John Huston’s egregious 1982 screen version came along, every rousing chorus of “Tomorrow” was like fingernails on a blackboard to my ears. But somewhere between Kathleen Turner clubbing an Annie fan to death in Serial Mom and Jay-Z sampling “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” the show acquired the status of a beloved pop-cultural icon.
Hardcore fans may find it lacking in the property’s traditional brash vibrancy, but what makes this revival disarming is that it’s cute without being cutesy and sweet without being saccharine. It’s also an unexpected surprise to rediscover how indelibly one song after another is embedded into our – OK, my – mental showtune playlist. In much the same way the talented Lilla Crawford, as the feisty foundling kid with the mop of red curls, muscles her way into the heart of gruff billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Anthony Warlow), this is a tough show to resist.
Lapine’s treatment of that central relationship is typical of his approach in general, digging for emotional integrity in material that can easily get marooned in cartoonland. As the show opens, the raggedy crisscrossing clotheslines that drape the stage give way to a screen showing a black-and-white Universal newsreel of America in 1933, in the throes of the Great Depression. Poor folks are living in shantytowns and even the country’s richest man, Warbucks, is being forced to close factories. The social context is abundantly clear by the time the scene shifts to a stylized tenement building where Annie and her fellow orphans live under the scornful supervision of boozing Miss Hannigan (Katie Finneran).
The creative team’s construction is impeccable. Few musicals open with as brisk and vivid a depiction of their hero, his or her environment and the dreams that drive them as Annie, with the affecting one-two-three punch of the songs “Maybe,” “It’s the Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow.” Right away, we get that Annie has been nourished through years of hardship by the hope of one day being reunited with her parents. And that hope in turn has given her the warmth to serve as a surrogate mother to the rest of the girls. Emily Rosenfeld as pint-sized Molly is the scene-stealer among them here, bedding down each night in a drawer under the stairs.
Meehan’s book also wastes no time in establishing the particular torture that Annie’s pluckiness represents to Miss Hannigan. In the Broadway premiere, the incomparable Dorothy Loudon built the mold for that character as a brassy harridan, while Carol Burnett turned her into a daffy, over-the-top pantomime dame in the Huston film. (Nell Carter and Kathy Bates also played the role in subsequent stage and TV versions.)
Finneran lands somewhere in between in a performance that still seems to be settling on a definitive stamp. A Tony winner for Noises Off and Promises, Promises, the actress knows her way around a comic pratfall. She’s younger than the norm for the role, which lends a hint of poignancy to the frowzy floozy’s romantic yearnings. And her delivery of Miss Hannigan’s signature number, “Little Girls,” is as much a desperate plea to be rescued as a display of demonically possessed Cruella-de-Villainy. Finneran gets capable backup in the bad-guy department from Clarke Thorell as her scheming brother Rooster and J. Elaine Marcos as his money-hungry doxy Lily St. Regis.
But the heart of the show, as it should be, is Crawford’s Annie. The 11-year-old actress has the vocal chops necessary to sock the songs across, but also the tough pragmatism to command a roomful of heavyweight politicians without coming off as obnoxious. The scene in which she plants the seeds for the New Deal with F.D.R. (Merwin Foard) and his jaded cabinet is a delight.
As formulaic as it is, it’s easy to get caught up in the spell Annie casts over the Warbucks household when she is taken in for Christmas as a PR exercise. Brynn O’Malley makes a lovely impression as Oliver’s doting secretary Grace Farrell, as does the Fifth Avenue mansion itself in David Korins’ imaginative design. Lifted literally right out of a storybook, the set allows the domestic staff to flip pages as they move from room to room and is dominated by a chandelier that morphs into a crystal Christmas tree.
Perhaps the most distinguishing element in this production, however, is Australian musical-theater and opera veteran Warlow’s impressive Broadway debut as Daddy Warbucks, the industrialist who discovers the gentle joys of parenthood. The actor has tremendous stage chemistry with Crawford, and his pristine baritone makes “Something Was Missing” an unexpectedly moving high point.
The significant weak spot in Lapine’s staging is the dance interludes. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler is at his best with the kind of idiosyncratic contemporary moves required in shows like In the Heights and Bring It On. But old-fashioned Broadway production numbers, which is what this score cries out for, are not his forte. Even in the tap-dance finale, the choreography never quite takes flight. Elsewhere, too, the lack of structure in the dancing contributes to make the musical seem under-populated on the large stage of the Palace.
But overall, this is a winning presentation of an unapologetically sentimental show that tips its hat to an earlier era in musical theater, before the age of cynicism and industrial spectacle redefined the Broadway model.