Monday, November 19, 2012

Sunny Days are Here Again

Review:  Annie
Lilla Crawford and Sunny the dog in the Broadway revival of Annie.

For better and for worse, the 1977 Tony-winning smash Annie has become synonymous with the words “Broadway musical.”  Its eternal cheerfulness and broad comedy represent the pinnacle of the musical-as-escapist-entertainment, allowing audiences young and old the chance to laugh away their cares for a few hours.  However, the show’s saccharine sweet reputation has caused an entire generation of potential theatregoers to avoid musical theatre like the plague, assuming the entire genre is nothing but smiling moppets singing shallow paeans to all that is good and right in the world.  Any modern revival must contend with staying true to the show’s roots while trying to appeal to the jaded cynics that make up a sizeable portion of the country’s population.

Director James Lapine’s handsome revival attempts to solve this conundrum by adopting a more grounded approach to the material, and while not always successful, his interpretation does allow the show’s enormous heart to shine bright.  Little orphan Annie’s search for a family of her own is as emotionally involving as it’s ever been, even if some of the more overtly comedic elements of Thomas Meehan’s book and Charles Strouse’s score suffer due to Lapine’s new focus.  While there are still plenty of laughs, they are not as hearty as they might have been, though the show as a whole remains thoroughly entertaining.  The young and young-at-heart will find it impossible to resist Annie’s many charms, and even this jaded critic found himself quite taken by the entire affair.

Lilla Crawford, the young actress who the New York Times dubbed “pretty much perfect” in the title role, was unfortunately absent from the performance I attended.  However, I am happy to report that her understudy, Taylor Richardson, is supremely charming as the street-smart orphan with the unwavering optimism.  There is enough sass in Richardson’s performance to keep the character’s sweetness from becoming sickening, and an innocence about her that keeps you on her side throughout the show’s entire runtime.  Her impressively bright belt makes even the oft-mocked “Tomorrow” sound fresh, and the young actress imbues the part with such sincerity that she proves impossible to resist.

Although they don’t get nearly the same amount of stage time as Richardson, the rest of this Annie’s orphans are equally talented and possibly even more adorable.  Ranging from seven to eleven years old, these precocious balls of energy sing and dance with an infectious, reckless abandon that lights up the cavernous interior of the Palace Theatre.  Lapine and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler play up the girls’ cuteness factor without seeming gratuitous, provoking the evening’s biggest belly laughs in the process.  And while all of the orphans are standouts, tiny Emily Rosenfeld threatens to steal the show as Molly, the littlest orphan with the biggest personality.

In contrast to the uniform excellence of the child actors, the adult roles are more of a mixed bag.  On the positive side, Anthony Warlow is sublime perfection as Oliver Warbucks, the curmudgeonly billionaire who initially invites Annie to his 5th Avenue mansion as a publicity stunt.  As Warbucks slowly falls for the plucky orphan, Warlow convincingly sheds his gruff exterior to create the most multifaceted and three-dimensional characterization of the entire show.  His gloriously sung “Something Was Missing” turns the sappy ballad into the evening’s uncontested highlight, serving as the perfect encapsulation of the unadulterated love a parent feels for their child.  In the thankless role of Warbucks’ chief secretary Grace Farrell, Brynn O’Malley is also quite lovely, though not quite on the same level as her costar and onstage boss.

Gifted with the production’s showiest role, two-time Tony-winner Katie Finneran is a slight disappointment as the evil Miss Hannigan.  A more developed variation of her Tony-winning Marge from Promises, Promises, Finneran’s take on the orphanage maven is an example of the downside to Lapine’s more grounded take on the material.  In trying to make Hannigan more sympathetic, Lapine and Finneran have lost the character’s comedic bite, leaving the show without the clear-cut villain it needs to fully succeed.  The performance is often hysterical, and the actress is especially adept at slapstick and physical comedy, but Finneran is simply too nice in the role.  By shying away from her character’s inherent meanness, she prevents her Hannigan from being the tour de force it was in the hands of Dorothy Loudon in the original or Carol Burnett in the 1982 film version.

Yet Finneran’s minor shortcomings are nothing compared to the complete ineptitude of Clarke Thorell and J. Elaine Marcos as Rooster Hannigan and his bumbling accomplice, Lily.  While not large roles, both characters are essential to the show’s plot, and in the right hands can become riotously funny scene stealers.  Thorell and Marcos seem completely unaware of this, offering up self-indulgent and decidedly unfunny portrayals of the two small time crooks.  It should be noted that Thorell makes out slightly better than Marcos, although both seem so completely out of their element that it hardly matters.

Aesthetically, David Korins’ storybook-inspired set gives the show a unique look without differing wildly from what audiences have come to expect from this classic show.  Susan Hilferty’s costumes similarly avoid reinventing the wheel, but the lovingly constructed garments look gorgeous nonetheless.  When Annie finally dons her iconic red dress late in Act II, the young actress looks truly beautiful, thanks in no small part to Hilferty’s efforts.  Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is a more radical departure from the norm, bordering on too contemporary for this Depression-era tale.  Blankenbuehler also needs to abandon his signature hip-hop inspired scene transitions, which have brought him diminishing returns since they first appeared in In the Heights and are wholly inappropriate here.

Overall, this production looks and feels enough like the classic Annie to avoid offending purists while offering enough subtle twists to hold the interest of those who have seen the show many times over.  This is not a radical reinvention of the material, but its enduring popularity over the past 35 years proves that the show doesn’t really need reinventing.  Under Lapine’s assured hand, this production feels fresh and offers up a bevy of top-notch performances, ensuring that the show’s target audience of young girls will absolutely adore it.  Thankfully, there is plenty for the adults to appreciate as well, and in these trying times it’s nice to have such a sparkling reminder that the sun will indeed come out tomorrow.

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