By now, it’s doubtful that we’ll ever need another revival of Annie. But nevertheless, the show is patching its sweater for another run on Broadway, this time at the Palace Theatre. Director James Lapine has been quoted as saying that he intended to bring a hard, topical edge to the “big show” of this 35-year old musical. Ironically, Annie (at the start, at least) wasn’t written for the children who now make up a major portion of its following. In 1974, Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse, and Martin Charnin (book, music, and lyrics respectively) were looking to bring a needed wave of nostalgia to American audiences languishing under the general nastiness of the 1970s (Nixon’s resignation, stagflation, the remnants of a hideously unpopular war). Makes sense — after all, the show is about the Great Depression, political dissatisfaction, and the hijinks of emotionally abused children. And what better time to re-contextualize the famously sunny musical than right now? We’ve got our own pockets full of woe. But despite its efforts to get with the times, the production seems more as if it’s fallen behind.
Annie‘s brightness glares in comparison to its contemporaries, having been written amid rapidly changing aesthetics and a serious recession (at the time, the most significant economic downturn since the Depression depicted in the show). And it can easily be read as either a responsive breath of fresh air or the last dying gasp of mid-century optimism. It was easier to stomach this show then—the bad memories were fresh, but there was a shorter distance to leap over in order to get back to that nostalgic place. But now? We have too far to reach, and when a night at the theater starts to feel like running hurdles, all that relentless optimism plays like satire. Look no further than a scene in which the titular orphan reinvigorates an exhausted Brain Trust to buck up and embrace cheerful, bipartisan harmony! If it weren’t for all the spangles, I’d swear we were watching a sketch cooked up by The Onion.
Which brings me to my question—is this really necessary? It’s been reported that Annie is performed in its various incarnations (tours, Broadway Junior productions, etc.) hundreds of times per year. And after a certain point (and, let’s face it, after the first revival), one has to wonder if Annie cuts the mustard as a worthwhile piece of theatre anymore. How many times can a show as thin as this one realistically be reimagined, reconstructed, or re-contextualized? To break it open, refract it, and put it back together is to accept that one day, the leftover seams will fatally compromise any remaining structural integrity. If the point of bringing it back again and again is to drive home the point that this is a classic for all ages (“the musical [we] remember,” they called it), doesn’t all that winking self-awareness back up on itself after a while? This revival makes an effort to prove its relevance by poking fun at the audience with listless jokes about Republicans and New Jersey. But that’s about it. Without many untested options for moving forward, this production spins its wheels deeper into the tracks of its predecessors. So, then, is it necessary? The only option left for this production’s impetus appears to be “surefire moneymaker,” a label that’s perhaps too easy.
All of these difficulties are presented in perfunctory fashion onstage. James Lapine navigates the flimsy, stilted book by keeping it moving as quickly as possible. He’s a pro, but unfortunately the rush treatment makes the resulting production feel a little slapdashed. This is even moreso the case with Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, which is sometimes effective (good stage patterns and use of space), and sometimes just too much (as in the finale). There seems to be a “more is more” aesthetic at work here — more color, more volume, etc.– that throws the show’s smaller moments off-balance. For example, the Warbucks mansion is gussied up to the max, with rotating staircases and glittering trees, and then flat cutouts barely taller than the actors suffice for ambience in other scenes. David Korins’ set is lit rather evenly by Donald Holder, and Susan Hilferty’s costume design works in concert with them.
None of this, by the way, is the cast’s fault. They appear to be having a genuine blast and sell it to the last second. In the title role, Lilla Crawford is likeable, though her impressively outsize vocal delivery sometimes threatens to undercut the emotional honesty of her performance. She shares her strongest work with Anthony Warlow, a veteran Warbucks with a fine voice and finer-tuned heart. At his right hand, Brynn O’Malley’s Grace Farrell is warmly no-nonsense, and it’s nice to see her loosen up as the show goes on. No one, however, is having more fun than Katie Finneran. Her Miss Hannigan plays like a warped hybrid of Bernadette Peters and Melanie Griffith—a faded showgirl with a particular affection for chewing scenery. As for her partners-in-crime, Clarke Thorell and J. Elaine Marcos make for a dim & daffy pair as Rooster Hannigan and Lily St. Regis. They are joined by a dependably committed ensemble, especially Madi Rae DiPietro, Georgi James, Junah Jang, Tyrah Skye Odoms, Taylor Richardson, and Emily Rosenfeld as the orphans, whose combined and individual energies are refreshingly charming.
At face value, Annie is inoffensive — a well-liked classic that will probably continue to be revived and performed for years to come. The problem, though, is that I’m not sure it can be taken at face value any longer.