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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 8, 2012

Annie Book by Thomas Meehan. Music by Charles Strouse. Lyrics by Martin Charnin. Based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” by Harold Gray. “Annie” and “Little Orphan Annie” used by permission of Tribune Media Services, Inc. Directed by James Lapine. Choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler. Scenic design by David Korins. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Projection design by Wendall K. Harrington. Hair design by Tom Watson. Animal Trainer William Berloni. Orchestrations by Michael Starobin. Cast: Katie Finneran, Anthony Warlow, and Lilla Crawford, with Brynn O'Malley, Clarke Thorell, J. Elaine Marcos, and Madi Rae DiPietro, Georgi James, Junah Jang, Tyrah Skye Odoms, Taylor Richardson, Emily Rosenfeld, Jaidyn Young, Ashley Blanchet, Jane Blass, Jeremy Davis, Merwin Foard, Joel Hatch, Fred Inkley, Amanda Lea LaVergne, Gavin Lodge, Liz McCartney, Desi Oakley, Keven Quillon, David Rossetti, Sarah Solie, Dennis Stowe, Ryan VanDenBoom.
Theatre: Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway between 46th and 47th Streets
Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes, with one intermission
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday at 2 pm & 8 pm, Thursday at 7 pm, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 pm & 8 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Ticket prices: $67.50 - $137.50
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Lilla Crawford with Sunny.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

There are several ways to approach a production of the Martin Charnin–Thomas Meehan–Charles Strouse musical Annie. You can treat it as simply what it is: an airtight musical comedy. You can view it as a comic strip, akin to the Harold Gray series that inspired it. You can present it as a either a family show, or as a serious-minded, adult-oriented political satire. Of course, the best productions (reportedly including the 1977 original) strike all these notes at once. Still others, like James Lapine's new one at the Palace, go zero for four.

Had you told me before this mounting that this show could be stiff, stolid, and above all joyless, I frankly would have laughed at you. It has a (not entirely undeserved) reputation as a kid magnet, but Meehan's savvy book charting the love affair of a little orphan girl with the billionaire Oliver Warbucks during the Great Depression has real feelings and real social bite that are only amplified by Charnin's firm lyrics and Strouse's addictively bouncy music. Any musical that convincingly contains the anthem "Tomorrow," deeply sensitive songs about love and loss, and high-octane toe-tappers about Herbert Hoover alongside repudiations of the parent-free life, paeans to consumerism, and even a New York lovefest number must be taken seriously.

Yet that is precisely what Lapine, who's helmed tuners as diverse as Sunday in the Park with George, Amour, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, has failed to do. Because he hasn't decided what point of view this Annie should be, it ends up not having one. No musical can exist without spirit, and one such as this, that thrives on optimism, has the hardest slog of all when that essential quality is as absent as it is here.

The trouble begins immediately, when the overture is interrupted to display a newsreel (projected against a "screen" of laundry as if hanging outside a tenement) setting the desperate 1933 era—and wastefully imparting information that, in case the viewer doesn't already know it, is imparted later in dialogue anyway. Already we don't know whether we're supposed to have fun or supposed to be ready to sob at a moment's notice.

Things don't improve once we're introduced to Annie (Lilla Crawford) and her friends, who are all languishing under the ministrations of their matron Miss Hannigan. Considering Annie is introduced to us with "Maybe," in which she dreams of the parents she's never known, and all the girls are a couple of additional minutes away from singing "It's a Hard Knock Life," they're in remarkably high spirits. And though Miss Hannigan herself is supposed to always be doused in them herself, to the point of hilarity, as played by Katie Finneran with the same woozy shtick she somehow rode to a Tony in Promises, Promises, she comes across as at best buzzed—at that more by plot necessity than the flask of whiskey she constantly swigs from.

Lilla Crawford with Brynn O'Malley, Anthony Warlow, and members of the cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The action proceeds apace, with Annie being discovered by Warbucks's secretary, Grace Farrell (a too-cool Brynn O'Malley), and spirited away to his deluxe Fifth Avenue mansion for the holidays. Yet when she arrives, it's not at all the lap of luxury. Set designer David Korins has designed a parodically cheap-looking set loaded with two dimensional columns, boringly beaded chandeliers, and a book-like roll-on backdrop that conveys neither opulence nor creativity. So many expenses have been spared, in fact, that when Miss Hannigan, her scheming brother Rooster (Clarke Thorell), and his dopey wife Lily (J. Elaine Marcos) sing of cheating Warbucks out of money for Annie, the fantasy stretch limousine in which they bizzarely ride away looks lusher than anything Warbucks owns.

Problems keep cropping up: Why does the "Tomorrow" reprise for FDR (Merwin Foard) and his cabinet play broad comedy on the first sing-through, even inserting a painfully strained Al Jolson reference, rather than the more obviously vaudevillian built-in reprise? Why does Crawford look prettier and more elegant in her rags and natural hairstyle than after costume designer Susan Hilferty has outfitted her in the character's trademark red dress and wig? And why, oh why, couldn't Korins have sprung for a real Christmas tree—or even something that believably looks like one—for the final scene where exactly that atmosphere is so critical?

This Annie is what the show, above all else, should not be: distractingly cynical. Although, it should be mentioned, not of the Roaring 1920s economics reportedly responsible for ushering in its plot—that's baked in. No, it assumes, even more than the workmanlike 1997 revival, that a coherent presentation, a compelling style and look, and even thoughtful orchestrations are not noteworthy parts of the theatre experience. (Michael Starobin's poorly cut-down charts, replacing Philip J. Lang's superb and humorous originals, fight every vocalist at every turn.) And, true, the chances are that most audiences won't care.

I suspect, however, that they will notice how many laughs Finneran blows (pretty much all of them). And how Crawford, blandly appealing if never naturally spunky, screeches through her songs with a shrill technique that should terrify her singing teacher, and doesn't tap into the heartache so central to the character. And how Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography is so confused that, despite being injected into far too many unnecessary places (the finale, now a bewildering tap extravaganza, is the prime example), it exhibits neither artistic nor entertainment-focused life.

A few things shine brightly. Australian stage superstar Anthony Warlow, making his Broadway debut, is pretty much perfect as Warbucks, singing like a dream and finding a captivating balance between hard-upbringing bluster and affection that's been waiting for its ideal outlet. Thorell, if perhaps not quite as broad as an actor playing Rooster should be, blazes through his every scene and song with an admirable conviction most other actors onstage lack. Sunny, playing the dog Sandy, is adorable. And the rest of the orphan corps (Emily Rosenfeld, Georgi James, Taylor Richardson, Madi Rae DiPietro, Junah Jang, and Tyrah Skye Odoms) is charming.

That's what the show itself should be, but this one never is. Given that its story ponders a country in the midst of financial meltdown, pondering an uncertain future and the government's responsibility (if any) in buying our way out of it at any cost, Annie should resonate within the hearts and minds of all who see it. While you're watching Lapine's treatment, however, you'll be left doubting whether, in fact, the sun will come out tomorrow—or, for that matter, ever again.

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