Even as the new Broadway revival of Annie is playing at the Palace Theatre, there are several hundred other productions going on in North America alone this year. Any week of any year a little red headed girl is belting out the signature tune “Tomorrow” to an adoring audience somewhere in the world. The Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin 1977 musical has never gone away, so do we really need it back? Well, we haven’t had it in New York in over a decade, so it is a nice time to introduce it to a new generation of kids. Annie holds up––it is well made––it is clean, tuneful fun for the whole family. On the other hand, this production directed by James Lapine and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler is no better than you might see it in any civic light opera production around the country.
For one thing, Lapine has tried to blanket the show with texture, weight and a focus on the meaning of the Great Depression. When Warbucks takes Annie to the movies, they aren’t seeing a Fred and Ginger musical, but they are seeing the world weary dramatic Street Scene. On the other hand, Lapine doesn’t avoid the bright lights of Times Square and the opulence of the Warbucks mansion decorated for Christmas––David Karins’ ingenious unfolding Christmas tree is quite beautiful. Susan Hilferty’s costumes stick to subdued colors and sepia tones, but Annie’s signature red and white dress is allowed to pop forth on cue. No matter what, you can’t keep Annie from her true optimistic self.
Lilla Crawford is the little girl who has won the part of the comic strip heroin. She is a good little actress with plenty of charm and an old timey, depression era, “New York” accent. She is spunky and tough and belts out her songs with a good sturdy voice. However, she sings it the way you might hear any number of little girls sing it––at the top of their lungs, dangerously bordering on snapping a vocal chord. Is it fair to compare new Annies to Andrea McArdle, the first Annie? I think it is, for Miss McArdle made the cast recording and we know how good a twelve year old girl can sing the score. Miss McArdle had that Judy Garland like quality of singing with an adult voice as a child. She sang “Tomorrow” casually, yet with power. She belted that ending, “You’re always a day away” with the greatest ease––nothing strident, nothing tense. McArdle had a unique sound and a new little actress has not been found to match her. But why not? This is Broadway for crying out loud! Surely an amazing talent worthy of a new cast recording is out there waiting to bring her own unique rich voice to the score. For now we have to wait.
As I watched this new production, vivid memories of the first time I saw Annie came back. I was twelve and it was a sit down production in San Francisco. Kathleen Freeman was Miss Hannigan. Freeman, last seen on Broadway in The Full Monty, was quite like the original Miss Hannigan, Dorothy Loudon, with those big buggy eyes and gravelly voice. She was a master of the double take and the slow burn. Now it is Katie Finneran as Miss Hannigan and we all thought she would be a great choice after her hilarious turn in Promises, Promises, but somehow...no. Finneran doesn’t hurt the show, but neither does her drunken chicken lady character register as anything other than bizarre. She does get well earned chuckles out of Thomas Meehan’s best jokes, but her singing is uneven and unappealing. Sure, all Hannigans have a character voice of a sort, but it is always nice to hear singing on pitch and perhaps a consistent tone. With every great line I could hear Carol Burnet from the film in the back of my mind. Burnet was funny. I could even hear good old Kathleen Freeman wafting back through the years. Freeman was funny. And this isn’t some stunt about making Hannigan a real person in a reimagined dark production of Annie––Finneran is indeed trying to be funny, but her particular way with the material doesn’t land.
On the other hand there is the wonderful Anthony Warlow of Australia making his Broadway debut as Oliver Warbucks and he is wonderful. His “Something Was Missing” will melt your heart. His resonant voice truly fills the Palace Theater––rich and beautiful it is. Warlow also displays a nice stature and tough demeanor that melts endearingly from the charms of his visiting orphan. Another plus to the production is Brynn O’Malley as a more business minded Grace Farrell than usual. This Grace appears to have her own share of boundaries to be broken down by Annie and allow for that not quite realized beginning of a love affair with Oliver Warbucks by the end of the show.
The other two big characters of concern are Rooster and Lilly, played blandly by Clarke Thorell and J. Elaine Marcos respectively. They dance well with Finneran in the “Easy Street” number, but they aren’t funny. That is perhaps the big downfall of this production––the lack of comedy in this musical comedy. Annie is not a musical drama like Carousel or West Side Story, it is a comedy based on a comic strip. Yes it is set in the Great Depression, but it contains a singing President of the United States (Merwin Foard) who dreams up the “New Deal” based on the optimism of a little girl singing “Tomorrow.” It has a pack of orphan girls who sing the rousingly optimistic “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.” There is also a wonderfully trained dog with soulful eyes to play Annie’s pal Sandy and to show up with a big red bow around his neck for Christmas. No, you can’t kill Annie even when you try to make it a drama, for its fundamental attributes (or trappings––you pick) make it work no matter what. However, a Broadway production should have been better and I have no doubt that some of the many other professional productions that will be mounted around the country this year will be better.