Nov 8, 2012
Annie is dead—but “Annie” lives. Two years after Harold Gray’s long-running comic strip about a plucky orphan child finally breathed its last, the perennially popular 1976 stage version of “Little Orphan Annie” is back on Broadway for the third time. For anyone surprised that the musical responsible for inflicting “Tomorrow” on the world has proved to have that kind of staying power, here’s an even bigger surprise: This revival of “Annie” is fabulous. Creatively staged by James Lapine, Stephen Sondheim’s longtime collaborator, and smartly cast from top to bottom, it makes a convincing case for a musical widely regarded by cynical adults as suitable only for consumption by the very, very young. Even if you’re a child-hating curmudgeon, you’ll come home grinning in spite of yourself.
What makes this “Annie” so special is that Mr. Lapine, who claims never to have seen the show prior to directing this production, decided to approach it not as an exercise in neon-lit nostalgia but as a hardheaded fable about life in the Great Depression. His Annie ( Lilla Crawford ) has a side-of-the-mouth Brooklyn-style accent, while Miss Hannigan (Katie Finneran), who runs the orphanage-sweatshop on whose doorstep Annie’s parents left her, is a nasty, drunken slut. And while the second act remains relentlessly optimistic—it couldn’t very well be anything else—Mr. Lapine has also succeeded in endowing the relationship between Annie and Daddy Warbucks ( Anthony Warlow ), the tough-guy tycoon who adopts her, with wholly credible emotion.
That last twist is the most striking aspect of Mr. Lapine’s staging, and his stars deserve great credit for bringing it to fruition. The 11-year-old Ms. Crawford’s voice is (if I may resort to euphemism) penetrating, but she has more than enough acting talent to compensate for the undeniable fact that she sings REALLY LOUD. As for Mr. Warlow, an Australian musical-theater performer with extensive operatic experience, he’s destined for stage stardom. Not only does he sing “Something Was Missing,” his solo number, with bewitching finesse—vocal connoisseurs will be dazzled by his skillful use of head voice—but he acts as well as he sings. Moreover, he and Ms. Crawford have terrific onstage chemistry, so much so that you’ll have no trouble believing that they love one another.
Ms. Finneran is, of course, a known commodity on Broadway, having won an extremely well-deserved Tony for the 2010 revival of “Promises, Promises,” and she’s as good here as she was there. Brynn O’Malley, who plays Grace, Daddy Warbucks’s secretary, first caught my eye five years ago in a Baltimore production of “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Since then I’ve been waiting for her to break out of the pack. This show might do the trick. Even though she’s playing an ungrateful second-banana part, you’ll definitely notice Ms. O’Malley, and wonder why she isn’t better known. The smaller roles are also well done, with top honors going to Merwin Foard, whose impersonation of F.D.R. (complete with leg braces, a nicely realistic touch) is dead on the mark.
David Korins, the set designer, and Susan Hilferty, the costume designer, deserve to be billed right alongside Mr. Lapine. Mr. Korins has given the show a bold look that fuses hard-edge comic-book architectural silhouettes with old-fashioned storybook portraiture, and Ms. Hilferty has made Annie and her fellow orphans look properly faded and scruffy. Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, on the other hand, is bouncy and effective but not especially distinctive: You won’t go home remembering any of the steps.
And the show itself? It is what it is. Thomas Meehan’s book is unexpectedly unfunny but otherwise solid and workmanlike. Not so the songs, by Charles Strouse (best known for “Bye Bye Birdie”) and Martin Charnin, which are all over the place. “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” is lively and fun, “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” is a knowing piece of ’30s pastiche that’s as clever as anything from “Follies,” “Tomorrow” is vomitously sweet, and everything else is filler.
That “Annie” works onstage is incontestable—it remains one of the most frequently mounted musicals of the postwar era—but the only way to make it worth seeing is to stage it so well as to paper over its lack of distinction. Mr. Lapine has brought off this seemingly impossible feat with awesome resourcefulness and aplomb. It’s one thing to do a good job on a classy show like “Sunday in the Park with George” or “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” To make “Annie” not merely watchable but delightful, by contrast, suggests that Mr. Lapine is a theatrical alchemist who has the power to change plain tinsel into solid gold.