Little Orphan Annie’s adventures charmed America as a comic strip from 1924 all the way to 2010, thanks to curly hair, undrenchable optimism, and catchy expressions like “Leapin’ lizards.”
Decades after the character’s inception, Annie the musical brightened a bleak time in the ’70s with its own cuteness, expertly adapted to the stage by a team of crafty pros.
And now that show is back to try to force a smile on our own harsh times,
offering the useful fantasy of a Depression-era orphan who lands into the lap of Daddy Warbucks’ lovin’ luxury, and even gets to keep the dog.
And while it’s not always a smooth ride, the adorableness factor definitely ends up sneaking out and reaching the balcony.
The James Lapine-directed production does a serviceable job of presenting the show’s contrast between squalor and class, even persuading us that it’s the rich guy who has a heart of gold while the wannabe rich characters are the sleazebags.
“Oh, wow”-ing her way through this human cartoon, Lila Crawford is a plus as a New Yawky sounding, big-lunged Annie, though she’s occasionally prone to the mechanical nature of child-star acting.
Anthony Warlow sings nicely as Daddy Warbucks, the stodgy billionaire who melts in the presence of the new 11-year-old love of his life, and Jeremy Davis has a smooth and period-perfect bit as radio host crooner Bert Healy.
And the chorus line of orphans is a giddy batch of scene stealers, stopping the show with their playful Act Two reprise of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile.”
But some of the raunchier characters aren’t deftly pulled off, like Lily the strumpet, who’s played too squeakily for anyone to later believe she could make a decent attempt to pass as Annie’s long suffering mother.
As the boozy, sneering orphanage lady Miss Hannigan, originated so brilliantly by Dorothy Loudon, two-time Tony winner Katie Finneran is interesting casting, but she comes off as hit-and-miss as Hannigan’s woozy descent down a stairway.
For one thing, Finneran looks too good to be this down-on-her-luck mess.
Finneran’s attractive and is dressed in too-nice robes that make it seem she’d actually have a chance in the outside world.
I would have also liked more of a subtext suggesting that Hannigan is deep-down an OK person who simply needs more affection to burst out of her shady facade.
(Why else would she force the girls to crow, “I love you, Miss Hannigan!” every time they address her?)
But Finneran’s a gifted comedian and she makes a fascinating macabre exercise out of the classic hate song “Little Girls.”
And like Annie herself, the dog hits all his marks.
So see Annie if you want something familiar, unchallenging, and generally likeable–and if you’re cheered by the sight of hundreds of little kids all around you, only some of them just marking time before Matilda arrives “Tomorrow.”