A confession: I love Annie. Yes, it's sappy. Yes, the characters are two-dimensional. Yes, there are songs that serve no purpose except to cover a costume change. And yet it gives me joy. It was the first professional production of a musical that I ever saw, more than thirty years ago. A few years later, I played Daddy Warbucks in a local production of the show, skull cap and all. So pardon me if my critical faculties take a backseat to nostalgia just this once.
That doesn't mean, however, that I automatically adore any and all productions of Annie. No, it takes a certain kind of director and choreographer to make the show work. Unfortunately, James Lapine (director) and Andy Blankenbuehler (choreographer) weren't up to the job, at least as evidenced in the current Broadway revival at the Palace Theatre.
Lapine's direction certainly works during the show's heartfelt moments: that's really what Lapine excels at in general. I've honestly never seen a production of Annie that was this emotionally honest and touching. What's missing is the comedy. This may be the least funny Annie I've ever seen. Even two-time Tony winner Katie Finneran falls somewhat flat here, and she's as close to guaranteed comic gold as anyone we currently have working in the theater. Finneran was nothing less than hysterical in both Noises Off and Promises, Promises, the two shows for which she won those Tonys. But here she falls back on schtick and mannerisms to eke out what few laughs this production provides.
What's also missing from Lapine's direction is a sense of bringing the various parts of a big musical together. For this, Lapine seems to have abnegated too much of the staging work to Blankenbuehler. While I was watching the first act, I noted how lumbering and artificial the staging was for many of the numbers. I couldn't remember who the choreographer was, but at intermission when I checked my Playbill, it made perfect sense that it was Blankenbuehler. His recent work has made it all too obvious that he only really works well in the hip-hop style of In the Heights, The Wiz, or Bring It On. When he tries to craft more mainstream dance the results are either awkward or risible, as they were in 9 to 5, The People in the Picture, and now here with Annie.
Blankenbuehler doesn't seem to know what to do with old-fashioned musical comedy. His "It's a Hard Knock Life" was full of pointless business that upstaged the number's intent. "NYC" likewise was overly busy and lacked focus. And the title number was so clumsy and overly focused on intricate footwork, versus appealing stage pictures, that I thought perhaps my old friend Anthony van Laast had dropped in for a guest appearance. (And don't get me started on the tap-dancing criminals shuffling off to jail in the finale. Oy.) What's more, Blankenbuehler includes interludes of what appears to be interpretive dance during scene transitions, just as he did in The People in the Picture. And it's only slightly less laughable here.
The scenic design by David Korins comprises a series of fairly cheap-looking, flimsy set pieces that are already starting to show their wear. It looks as though the producers told Korins to design the show so that when this production closed they could take it right on the road. This was particularly evident in the Warbucks mansion, which is represented here by a sort of over-sized toddler's flip book. It made for an efficient way to walk Annie through the entire mansion in one broad sweep, but it also screamed "budget cuts."
The current cast members here are a bit of a mixed bag, although there are some genuinely strong standouts. Anthony Warlow as "Daddy" Warbucks is outstanding, with a strong voice and a commanding presence. When the part calls for bluster, he's got in in spades, but he can also turn on the charm and exude an appealing sense of warmth. In the supporting cast, we can usually count on Rooster and Lily for a little comic relief, but Clarke Thorell makes for an instantly forgettable Rooster, and J. Elaine Marcos is utterly incomprehensible as Lily. As for Lilla Crawford as Annie, she's got the pipes all right, but her New Yawk accent was forced and distracting. I got the sense that Lilla was only doing what her vocal coach told her to do, but the result is jarring and artificial: "Tsoo-morraow, tsoo-morroaw, I love youse, tsoo-morraow..." (O.K., the "youse" is an exaggeration. But you get the point.)
The revival includes some fairly minor changes to the book by Thomas Meehan, changes that Meehan himself contributed. There's a new newsreel prologue, setting the time as the Great Depression, 1933. They've cut a few of the comic bits, including the groaner about Warbucks buying the Mona Lisa and putting it in the bathroom. There's a neat new tag for act one that includes some mini reprises: a hopeful "Maybe" for Annie, and a rueful "You Won't Be and Orphan for Long" for Warbucks. The moment is staged with Grace Farrell, Warbucks' secretary, looking on lovingly between them, and it's a touching way to end the act. Thankfully there's no new number from composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin. I mean no disrespect, but this never seems to work out in these classic revivals. (See "Topsy-Turvy" from Fiddler on the Roof.)Despite the current lackluster production, I still maintain that Annie is a solid show. It's sort of the opposite of the case with the current revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. With Drood, the show doesn't really work, and yet the production does. With Annie, the show works, but the production, for the most part, doesn't.