There’s a magical moment in the latest Broadway revival of Annie, a moment of touching simplicity and beauty that captures a real sincerity: Daddy Warbucks, a Fifth Avenue-dwelling billionaire, very awkwardly teaches his new 11-year-old best friend, a redheaded orphan girl, how to waltz. It’s funny, and touching, and human, and unfortunately it’s over all too quickly. It also perfectly captures the challenges inherent in a production with a lot of good ideas adding up to somewhat less than their sum.
Annie has always been kind of an odd duck, a comic strip-based musical featuring beleaguered (if peppy) orphans, their drunken shrew of a keeper, homeless people angry with the government, the billionaire mentioned above (who is most definitely out of touch), his angelic assistant…finding a way to keep the show aloft is a tall order indeed. And in this production, images of homeless people from the Great Depression cannot help but make us think of the denizens of Breezy Point in the wake of Hurricane Sandy; Daddy Warbucks’s aloofness can’t help but make him seem the very epitome of a one percenter. Those relevancies aside, though, the musical itself asks an audience to feel entertained by a story and score that travel from very dark to lighter than air without getting the bends.
Director James Lapine has steered his company to play the extremes moment by moment, which would seem a logical choice; the problem here is that the approach leaves the evening feeling schizophrenic. There is a lack of focus on display at the Palace, and it’s found pretty much across the board. The game cast (and it is, as they say, a deep bench, talent-wise) seems unsure which play they’re in – is this Odets or Gershwin? This confusion also seems evident in the choreography Andy Blankenbuehler has offered. The orphans’ numbers are appropriately rousing and inventive, but when the adult ensemble moves, the show stops cold.
There are, of course, performers who score notably well. Clarke Thorell is a novel and very good Rooster, Miss Hannigan’s even more dastardly brother, and Brynn O’Malley does everything possible with the surprisingly slight part of Grace Farrell. In the title role, Lilla Crawford sings the living bejeezus out of the score, but more than that she manages both a steady (and refreshing) Noo Yawk accent and many entirely credible acting beats. And Anthony Warlow is perfect as Warbucks – commanding, funny, appropriately autocratic and just as effectively soft-centered.
Two-time Tony winner Katie Finneran would seem an inspired choice for the role of comic villainess Miss Hannigan, particularly considering her hilarious turn in Promises, Promises. But her erratic performance lacks sharpness. It’s inconsistent, intermittently terrific and occasionally incomprehensible (perhaps that’s a sound issue, but I found her, more than most, hard to understand when singing). There are terrific ideas, but they’re not all being put across effectively.
And that, really, is what hampers this Annie. It would be great to see the storybook-hinged units that appear occasionally in David Korins’s set used more consistently throughout (they are used to great effect during Annie’s tour of Warbucks’s home in “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here”). Susan Hilferty’s clothes look terrific for virtually everyone; Wendall K. Harrington’s projections are subtle and evocative; Donald Holder’s lighting is subdued and lovely; but these things don’t combine to effervesce. Rather, the whole show feels like it’s caught in the land of Trying Very Hard, rather than offering liftoff.