You could not count me an “Annie” aficionado before I saw its third Broadway production, which has opened tonight. “Annie” to me conjured up nothing but “Tomorrow” sung badly by generations of cloyingly precocious girls. But then again Sandy meant something different then as well.
Now, when Annie tells a cop that weather doesn’t bother her and then she sings to Sandy (!) that the sun will come up, well…as a nearby theatergoer Tweeted during intermission: “I can’t believe some sentimental clown kept crying during the first act of Annie, or that it was me.”
“Annie” is so old that its original star, Andrea McArdle, is 49 years old, yet it has never had a chance to fade away into nostalgia: It’s been done not just on Broadway (1977-1983; again in 1997), not just in Hollywood (1982 movie; 1999 TV movie) but this year alone there are more than 100 licensed productions, everywhere from Sao Paolo to Denmark to Wilson West Middle School in Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania… including three “Annies” in New York and five in New Jersey.
Still, the timing does seem ideal for its Broadway revival, and director James Lapine is attempting a timely approach to this story of optimism triumphing in a bleak era. Lapine’s “Annie” is as always shamelessly sentimental but it is also actually affecting; dopey but endearing; full of Broadway razzmatazz but also blunt in its depiction of tough times.
“Annie” begins now with a black-and-white newsreel that shows the musical’s time and place – New York City in 1933, with its unemployment and breadlines and housing foreclosures, some of it feeling uncomfortably close to the present day. A curtain made up of clotheslines rises to reveal a tenement, and the orphans all asleep in one bed, including Annie, whose sole possessions are the dog-eared note her parents left 11 years ago when they left her at the doorstep, and the half-locket that she wears around her neck; her parents promised to bring the other half when they came back for her.
Some of the later scenes as well are grittier than you might expect, showing people down on their luck, living in Hoovervilles beneath a bridge that looks like the one in “In The Heights” and talking like the street urchins in “Newsies.”
This is an “Annie” that has traveled some ways from its feel-good tap-dancing origins, and even further from Little Orphan Annie, the comic strip that inspired it.
Is it an “Annie” for adults? Not really. It’s still largely a fantasy for little girls – though their parents are offered the mild social commentary as a reward for their guardian duties. The story remains in the heightened colors of a fantasy: Annie is rescued from the orphanage by a billionaire industrialist Daddy Warbucks (were there any billionaires in the 1930’s?), who brings Annie along to a meeting with FDR, where the red-headed orphan teaches the President and his cabinet to be optimistic and inspires them to come up with the New Deal.
The songs by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin are sturdy, tuneful and familiar: Besides “Tomorrow,” there are “It’s the Hard-Knock Life,” (a favorite of Jay-Z), “Easy Street,” “Maybe” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.” The production values are pleasingly expensive-looking, especially David Korins’ big inventive sets, such as the lush interior of Warbucks mansion. Andrew Blankenbuehler’s choreography is at its best not during the conventional numbers, but in what amount to mute intervals telling their own stories in-between the major scenes – when Annie goes from apple seller to hobo in search of her parents, for example, or when she’s buying a coat at Bergdorf Goodman with the help of the staff.
The little girls in the show are still cute and sassy, or (depending on your W.C. Fields quotient) a gaggle of polished pre-pubescent performers whose memoirs I do not plan to read in 20 years. The adults are largely one-dimensional, by design. The apparent attempt to make them more than that doesn’t get much traction. Others with a background in Annieania are sure to explain how Katie Finneran, who plays the drunken slut of a orphanage mistress Miss Hannigan, differs from the Miss Hannigans of Dorothy Loudon or Carol Burnett or Nell Carter. I don’t get what she’s doing, other than reprising the drunken slut of a barfly in “Promises, Promises,” where she was the best thing about that revival. She is not the best thing about this revival, though her drunken pratfalls are still funny.
The stand-out in a cast that largely doesn’t stand out is Anthony Warlow, an Australian opera singer making his Broadway debut as Oliver Warbucks, who has a deep voice and a winning manner; despite his name, he is such a warm, kind killer industrialist that anybody would want him to adopt them.
Lilla Crawford, who plays Annie, has a strong voice, and seems smart, confident and grounded, and that’s as far as I’m going in critiquing an 11-year-old. Sandy the stray male dog whom Annie adopts is played by a female terrier who, according to her bio in Playbill, was rescued from a dog pound 24 hours before being euthanized, and whose name is Sunny. Now, a cynic might suspect this story. But who living in New York City these days wouldn’t prefer a Sandy who turned out to be Sunny?
At The Palace (1564 Broadway at 47th Street)
Book by Thomas Meehan; music by Charles Strouse; lyrics by Martin Charnin; based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” by Harold Gray; directed by James Lapine; choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler; sets by David Korins; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by David Holder; sound by Brian Ronan; projections by Wendall K. Harrington; hair design by Tom Watson; animal trainer, William Berloni,
Cast: Katie Finneran (Miss Hannigan), Anthony Warlow (Oliver Warbucks), Lilla Crawford (Annie), Brynn O’Malley (Grace Farrell), Clarke Thorell (Rooster Hannigan) and J. Elaine Marcos (Lily).
Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes