New “Annie” Avoids Red Scare

Written by Doug Strassler on . Posted in Arts & Film, Theater.


James Lapine’s revival has legs – and not one but two noteworthy Broadway debuts

Photo credit Joan Marcus

It was 36 seasons ago that a little show about a little orphan named Annie, adapted by the team of Martin Charnin, Thomas Meehan and Charles Strouse from Harold Gray’s long-running comic, took Broadway by storm and became an instant classic. Many tomorrows later, however, the show – the ultimate family musical – became a bit of an orphan itself, as multiple attempts at reviving and sequelizing Annie failed to find a home. A similar fate doesn’t seem likely for James Lapine’s current revival at the Palace Theatre, a delightful production that comes with charm to spare – if also one noteworthy problem.

But, just like the show’s titular optimist, I’ll dwell first on what works: eleven-year-old Lilla Crawford is miraculous as the ragamuffin who finds a home and love in the mansion of the rich but lonely Daddy Warbucks, acquitting herself nicely with the show’s signature Noo Yawk Tawk and nailing the show’s flawless musical numbers, especially “Maybe.” And Anthony Warlow, a prolific Australian actor making his Broadway debut, taps just the right grace notes as Oliver Warbucks, creating genuine chemistry with Crawford as well as Brynn O’Malley in the typically thankless role of secretary Grace Farrell. Warlow also proves to be a singer bar none, in particular making one of the show’s minor tunes, “Something Was Missing,” a major triumph.

Lapine, who co-created Into the Woods with Stephen Sondheim, knows how to dig into a vat of sugary kids’ stuff and excavate the sweet from the saccharine, which he does not only by coaxing a wholly organic surrogate father-daughter relationship from Crawford but also by working with Meehan to tweak some of the original book’s nuances for our current era, which might not be the Depression but isn’t exactly a robust time of hopes and dreams for everyone. For instance, gone is a line about Daddy Warbucks buying and then disposing of the Mona Lisa. (Michael Starobin’s resonant orchestrations are also far from Beau-Brummely.)

Susan Hilferty’s period costumes help define the gap between threads for the well-off and the poor, while David Korins’ clever pop-up sets maintain the original’s comic strip sensibility, ranging from Warbucks’ impressive mansion to the New York street Hoovervilles. Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography also emphasizes the show’s cheerful comic stylings in dream numbers like “N.Y.C,” though several of the orphans’ numbers, including “It’s a Hard Knock Life” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” suffer a bit from over-crowding. There were many times during the numbers that I was simply unable to crane my head or cock my neck enough to see all of the action. (Also, let me stop to praise the septet of wonderful young actresses playing the orphans: Madi Rae DiPietro, Georgi James, Junah Jang, Tyrah Skey Odoms, Taylor Richardson, and Emily Rosenfeld.)

How could anyone hate orphans so delightful? Well, Miss Hannigan, the boozy floozy in charge of their orphanage sure does, and this Miss Hannigan is a misfire. Finneran, an industry favorite who has already nabbed two Tonys for reviving show-stopping roles in Noises Off and Promises, Promises, steps too far into realism, creating a Hannigan with edges too sharp. Part of the problem is that the role itself is more threadbare than people realize; though Dorothy Loudon won a Lead Actress Tony for creating Miss Hannigan, the role is a clear supporting one, in need of a few more scenes and an extra number or two. Finneran and Lapine take this wiggle room and fill it in the wrong direction. Miss Hannigan should be the show’s villain, but she should be a playful antagonist. Finneran’s lone solo number, “Little Girls,” eschews humor for real hate, unnecessarily weighing her scenes down. (The actress also sounded slightly off-key on the night I attended.) Clarke Thorell as Rooster, her ne’er-do-well brother, shines in a perfect contrast to Finneran’s overly dark performance.

No matter; Annie remains an evergreen. So stick out your chin, and grin, and head on over to the Palace.

Annie

Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway. www.anniethemusical.com. Open run.

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