Nov 8, 2o12
That’s the sound that emerges from the throats of hundreds when an actress named Sunny first walks across the stage of the Palace Theater. Broadway has long been familiar with the phenomenon of entrance applause, but the entrance “awww” is rare.
Still, if any show seems guaranteed to elicit that response, it is “Annie,” the 1977 musical that opened on Thursday night in a serviceable revival. It would be churlish to begrudge all that “awww”-ing for the fetching Sunny, who has bravely taken on both a male role and a part whose name would seem to be anathema to New Yorkers at this moment.
Sunny, who has four legs, plays the role of Sandy. Not Sandy the evil hurricane, of course, but Sandy the dog, a creature both docile and heroic. The chorus of approval that greeted this Sandy was succeeded by the voice of a toddler in the audience, cooing the words, “A pup-py.” And everybody went “awww” all over again, before Sunny was taken into the arms of an equally fetching little girl who then delivered a tuneful anthem of optimism.
At such moments, the constant theatergoer may feel one of two different, equally strong urges: to mist up or throw up. I am not exactly proud to say that I misted up, but I’m not ashamed, either.
It has been, after all, a dark and confusing period in storm-struck, waterlogged New York, and it is reassuring to be in the company of a Sandy you want to cuddle instead of flee. And to listen to a runaway orphan (played by the gleamingly confident Lilla Crawford), who battles the Great Depression blues by singing loudly to herself that things will get better real soon — and in an honest-to-gosh New Yawk accent, to boot.
Say what you will about the current version of “Annie,” which is directed with a slightly tremulous hand by James Lapine and features the virtuosic Katie Finneran as the villainous Miss Hannigan, you can’t fault the timing of its return to Broadway. When this singing adaptation of the venerable comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” originally opened 35 years ago, New York was a shabby and embattled city, reeling from the threat of bankruptcy.
As directed by its lyricist, Martin Charnin — with a book by Thomas Meehan and music by Charles Strouse — “Annie” dared to be a smiley-faced, old-fashioned love song to a city’s gumption and resilience. That production won a slew of Tonys and went on to figure prominently in the image-rehabilitating “I Love New York” ad campaign that began the same year.
Now, as the city recovers from the crippling onslaught of Hurricane Sandy, and the country wrestles with financial woes not so unlike those of the Great Depression, here comes “Annie” once again, encouraging us to stick out our chins and grin.
Of course, Annie has been around the block many times since she first chirped that advice in the deathlessly cheerful song “Tomorrow.” There was the lumbering 1982 movie version, a couple of misfired sequels, a little-loved 1997 revival and too many school and community theater productions to count. Heck, even the dewiest, pluckiest ingénue would have a hard time staying fresh once she became an endlessly re-marketable brand name.
That’s the challenge faced by Mr. Lapine and company, and it is met a tad uneasily. Mr. Lapine is best known for his collaborations with Stephen Sondheim (“Sunday in the Park With George,” “Passion”), a composer whose brooding musicals are as introspective and idiosyncratic as “Annie” is extroverted and generic.
It would seem that Mr. Lapine is hoping to introduce at least a tincture of psychological shading to a show that is only, and unapologetically, a singing comic strip. In its first incarnation “Annie” was an unstoppable sunshine steamroller. This version, which flirts with shadows, moves more shakily.
The show’s scenic design (by David Korins), which relies largely on two-dimensional cutouts, and choreography (by Andy Blankenbuehler) can come across as sketchy and unfocused. The dance routines and visual jokes are sometimes presented hesitantly and register only peripherally. And adults in the audience may occasionally feel unsettled by some of the reimagined characterizations on display.
The show’s comic center has always been Miss Hannigan, the hard-drinking, little-girl-hating head of the orphanage where Annie, when the show begins, has lived for all of her 11 years. In 1977 Miss Hannigan was portrayed by Dorothy Loudon as a juicy gargoyle, with equal parts Dickensian villainy and showbiz oomph.
Ms. Finneran, a two-time Tony winner, takes a more humanizing approach. Like the scene-stealing singles-barfly she played in the 2010 revival of “Promises, Promises,” her Ms. Hannigan is a lonely lush who really just wants to land a fella.
When her no-good brother, Rooster (a very good Clarke Thorell), proposes a scheme to swindle Oliver Warbucks and make Annie “disappear,” you detect glimmers of a conscience beneath her snarling exterior. When she performs her big solo, “Little Girls,” with a possessed, mesmerizing loopiness, it feels less like a declaration of war than like a private nervous breakdown. You don’t feel like hissing this Miss Hannigan, which adds an addling ambivalence to the show. (The supporting cast — which includes Brynn O’Malley as Warbucks’s secretary, and J. Elaine Marcos as Rooster’s unlikely accomplice — generally seem rather grumpy.)
As Warbucks, the tycoon who takes Annie in for Christmas as part of a public relations campaign but soon falls for the irresistible tyke, Anthony Warlow also ventures into naturalism, inflecting his songs with unexpected emotional variety. But once you start to think of Warbucks as a real person, his blossoming love for little Annie can register as a bit creepy in the age of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Still, evil-thinking grown-ups are not this show’s target audience. Little girls are, at least judging by the crowd with which I saw the show (and by the Annie dresses being sold in the lobby). And they have some lively (if occasionally incomprehensible) alter egos to root for in the young actresses playing Miss Hannigan’s orphans.
The delicate-featured but indefatigable Ms. Crawford, who is possessed of both a golden glow and a voice of brass, is pretty close to perfect in the title role. If only she had more stage time with Sunny, the performer people couldn’t stop talking about at intermission.
The management has wisely augmented Sunny’s presence by having the preshow announcements delivered in barks (translated by a human voice). After all, you can’t go broke overestimating the importance of the “awww” factor.