NEW YORK — Director James Lapine's much-anticipated revival of "Annie," which opened here Thursday night, was supposed to freshen up (and apply some new grit) to the famous red-headed orphan with the pooch and the parent problem.
This is "Annie's" first Broadway outing of the 21st century (it was first seen on Broadway in 1977), and it comes at a moment when this justly beloved musical's Depression-era setting has a certain resonance. But this blustery, miscast and internally inconsistent new production ends up missing most of the charm, warmth and, above all, comedy of a traditional musical that's so big-hearted and so gorgeously put to music by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, it usually can withstand all manner of incursions and still come out on top. On one unforgettable night years ago, I even saw half a touring "Annie" set collapse around a deadpan Jo Anne Worley's ankles. Even then, the orphans and the constant wit, charm and intelligence of Thomas Meehan's book easily won the night.
But not this time. At the Palace Theatre, it feels very much like "Annie" has gotten lost.
It has some successful, even emotional, moments, especially involving Anthony Warlow's Daddy Warbucks, one of the few roles here that does not feel miscast. And the brilliant scene where we watch Annie tell FDR (Merwin Foard) how to run the country survives in its ebullient optimism. But that doesn't assuage one's overall disappointment in a production that needed to consider the mantra, first do no harm to every little girl's favorite Broadway show — including those former little girls who now have little girls of their own. Alas, some of them will be heading home telling their charges how "Annie" used to be. (A necessary disclosure: Tribune Media Services, part of Chicago Tribune Media Group, has owned the "Little Orphan Annie" and "Annie" trademarks and copyrights since 1924 and has licensed them for use in this production.)
The new set design is a huge part of the problem. Nothing physically collapsed during the show, but David Korins' cluttered new concept felt like a mess from the start, switching styles with nearly every scene. The orphanage, generally a sleazy, cramped locale with a row of beds, is here rendered as a faded but quite expansive place to lay your head (not so different in tone, really, than Warbucks' joint). The crucial New York street scenes are skeletal and disappointingly downscaled and monochromatic. Hooverville is a bust. The Warbucks mansion is conceived as giant storybook pages, which Annie and her new servants turn as they walk from room to room. That's fair enough, but it's the kind of conceit one has to keep in play all night. All in all, the show's romanticization of the city of New York is rendered with a dizzyingly inconsistent visual pallet, and — as when a chandelier becomes the famous Christmas Tree — the big numbers are weirdly over-thought.
Andy Blankenbuehler's halting choreography, it feels, is fit into a hundred nooks and crannies and never catches fire, or even makes much sense.
The human problems are similarly legion, beginning with the miscast Katie Finneran, who, along with her director, makes the mistake of mostly isolating her Miss Hannigan from her mischievous orphan charges instead of reacting to their tricks. The keeper of the orphanage is a tricky character, of course, the driver of the plot against Annie (Lilla Crawford) and Daddy Warbucks and his love-interest, Grace (Brynn O'Malley). But she's also a striving, decent-underneath-it-all character, far from Cruella de Vil. Finneran mostly looks lost and flailing here, trapped somewhere in the wastelands between traditional musical comedy stylings and some kind of new realism. And this hugely talented actress' constant dithering in no place in particular cuts her crucial connection with the audience. To get that back, she'll need to engage with the kids, all of whom are ready to play with her.
Warlow, who has a fine voice, is more honest and thus more successful as Warbucks, although you might say that Crawford's Annie has him pretty much at hello, or, more accurately, at "gee." That diminishes the dramatic tension of the piece and reduces the eventual payoff in the last scene. Crawford, no question, has a lot more real, complex girl inside her than the typical spunky, bewigged moppets who've played this role on stage and screen, but there's a certain invulnerability throughout that proves problematic. Crawford is a capable kid; that was a directing problem.
Even the typically sure-fire scene in the radio studio feels ill at ease, as does all of the Rooster (Clarke Thorell) and Lily (J. Elaine Marcos) shtick, which belongs in a different version of the show. All in all, Lapine and his producers seem to have struggled to find the sweet spot between eschewing the overt sentiment of days gone by without killing off the charm of one of the most endearing musicals ever penned. One sympathizes. "Annie" has some old-fashioned elements that resist any and all reworking. She is, after all, a character in a classic comic strip and she must, above all else, be aspirational.
But children don't worry about such stuff. They naturally reinvent themselves. The main problem with this "Annie" is that it did not do enough with the kids.
"Annie" plays at the Palace Theatre on Broadway and 47th St. Call 877-250-2929 or visit anniethemusical.com.
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