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Shout! Broadway

Is that beloved, spunky, optimistic little redhead showing her age? To answer with a song title from the Annie score: Maybe.

If that little orphan, Annie, were a real person, we'd be readying the 100th anniversary of her birth (the character was said to be 10 or 11 years old when the comic strip first appeared in papers 89 years ago this summer). And with her feistiness and can-do, stiff-upper-lip attitude, she might have made it to live 100 summers. Of course, she was one of those comic strip kids who had adventures for years, but never really aged. The show has long been a popular choice for regional and school and summer theatres all over. The writing of the musical was completed in the summer of 1973, debuted at Goodspeed Opera House in America's bicentennial summer of 1976, and then came to Broadway. It's been going strong ever since. Well, sort of. While the original production had its pre-Broadway bumps and the sequel sputtered, re-started and then sank, and Annie's Broadway revivals have received mixed reviews, the sun more often than not comes out again tomorrow. There was the big movie version, a TV-movie, and now a new film version is in the works. Five Junes ago, an intriguing celebratory anniversary 2-CD set was released, including cut songs and those from that revival.

New cast members are freshening up the current production, with the newly cast Miss Hannigan, Jane Lynch, appearing to great zingy effect for bonus tracks of her character's songs on this new album. Still, if Annie isn't exactly getting "old," some things here sound, well, tired. Or, more specifically: the kind of age-creeping that happens when automatic pilot sets in or an attempt to sound fresh and spirited somehow seems too artificially generated and spruced up without soul and heart. Like some face-lifts, some theatrical ones are more apparent and less natural than others.

I'm a fan of the score and the characters and have found things to enjoy in all versions released, including guilty pleasure moments from the Spanish-language cast belting with brio: "Mañana! Mañana!" The score is generally solid and sturdy, but isn't always served well or served up well here. While top-billed Katie Finneran has a romp with the Hannigan role of the mean, selfish orphanage matron, she can be more abrasive than delightfully devilish and playfully "put-upon." A tendency to screech and scream makes some moments and notes harsh and unappealing, and there's simply more "shrill" than comedic skill, more a queen of mean than a clownish bundle of frustration and frenzy. Her "Little Girls" in its main and reprised version is more than a little disappointing. She's better on the group number "Easy Street," with Clarke Thorell and J. Elaine Marcos both appealingly dopey and driven as her partners in planned crime, the vaudeville glee shining. And speaking of "Glee," when Jane Lynch shows up with her own versions of the aforementioned numbers, everything works much better. It's more musical, less grating, more savvy in its characterization and coloring of words—and just plain more fun.

Anthony Warlow's Warbucks work is wonderful. This skilled actor-singer finds his own creditable and credible nuances in phrasing which come off as fresh and involved, rather than different for the sake of being different. Rather than make the man just a strong, strong-voiced guy with a bustling personality that slowly melts, he's more three-dimensional throughout. While there's more "humanity" than humor, there's a definite connection and thoughtfulness and some real affection for the musical styles and the titular young lady. She, Lilla Crawford, is a zingy personality and a trouper. Not sticky and sentimentalized, somebody's gone way far in the other direction, in the direction of the character and how she sings. Unfortunately, she has been burdened with having to take on a thick New Yawk accent to sound "authentic," but it's labored and unattractive and distracting. Big time. So, rather than have her ringing, belting tones with open vowels on the title word in "Tomorrow" throughout, mostly it's heard as "t'maww-row." And in "Maybe," she sings about her dreamed-of mom "paw-ring" her dad some "caw-feee." It sounds coy and fake and does take away plenty from the needed wistful and vulnerability factors. Her fellow orphans (who don't sound different enough from each other here) show the same inflection, singing about what sounds irritatingly like "The Hod-Knawk Loif" ("The Hard-Knock Life") and on and on.

While some instrumental passages and accompaniments sound rushed or lazy, many others are sprightly and sparkly. It's a treat to have some extra extended bits and reprises, plus music for the "Bows," as it is to have included some lyrics not preserved on other versions, like "Gussy her up!" beginning a section for Warbucks's staff, which includes the polished pro Liz McCartney as Mrs. Pugh (rhymes with "When you're through," as Anniephiles know). Also of note is the melding of the "title songs" from both the original score and the film ("Annie"/"We Got Annie"). An especially cute bit is having FDR's cabinet members sing shyly and/or badly in the reprise of "Tomorrow," which was only done a little in the original.

Lyricist/original director Martin Charnin, composer Charles Strouse, and bookwriter Tom Meehan all contribute to liner notes, with Meehan also giving pages of very lengthy, detailed plot synopsis. And the songwriters make mini-cameos with a line of narration and, yes, the barking of Sandy the dog (those union rules must be strict on recording animal actors). And it's nice to see the name of veteran cast album producer Thomas Z. Shepard top billed.

- Rob Lester

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