Attired in dressy clothes and perched atop seats priced at $100, the girls and boys in the audience at the Palace Theatre, where the third incarnation of Annie is currently in production, may not be personally acquainted with the school of hard knocks. Glancing around the theater at the show’s end, I counted the booster seats, which the theater supplies for its smallest audience members, and was amazed at how many little kids had the good fortune of seeing the show. The politics of 1930s Depression-laden America may fly over the heads of young viewers, but that’s beside the point. Annie is a foremost a story of wish fulfillment. And its big-hearted, big-belted songs are anthems of optimism.
I had forgotten how much political content the play held, from the ironic dedication to President Hoover, (“We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover”) to the manifest distinctions between the conservative Daddy Warbucks and the liberal FDR. The political milieu, which director James Lapine emphasizes both dramatically and comically, gave the production its necessary heft beyond Annie’s fantasy storyline. The only instance when the political element teetered too far into schlock was a scene featuring President Roosevelt’s cabinet in discussion of how to ameliorate the country’s economic woes. Annie begins to sing, “Tomorrow” and suddenly she’s standing on the desk in the oval office, thus motivating FDR to introduce the New Deal. He motions for his staff to join in song, calling in the direction of Mr. Warbucks, “You too, Republicans!” It was a hokey but comical moment that dipped precipitously into camp once the Secretary of the Treasury brought out the jazz hands.
Among the adults in the audience, it’s a safe gamble that nearly everyone knows the story and music, either from the original 1977 production, its revival in 1997, or its film version, released in 1982. We have our expectation of how Annie will look and how Miss Hannigan will talk. The greatest accomplishment for Lapine is that he gets so much personality and nuance from each actor that, in less talented hands, might be reduced to caricature. The show doesn’t rest on Annie alone, but 11-year old Lilla Crawford, who fills the role, carries so much of the performance on her small frame. Her voice has clearly benefitted from vocal training while retaining that purity of emotion that happens when an actress connects to her lyrics. She also blends youthful earnestness with the necessary hardscrabble roughness that lends believability to her character. Spitting into her hand before shaking Daddy Warbucks' hand is a welcome touch, especially when he does the same.
The other cast members give equally multi-faceted performances. As Miss Hannigan, Katie Finneran projects more than a cantankerous orphanage keeper; she is a woman who clings to her last hopes of being happy and desirable to men. As Daddy Warbucks, Anthony Warlow conveys much more than a stodgy stiff-nosed billionaire; he is a man in search of meaningful relationships who carries the memory of his own scrappy youth. And the actresses who fill the roles of the orphan girls are more than Dickensian street urchins who sing about misfortune. They are little comediennes who will gladly steal a laugh as willingly as they steal Miss Hannigan's things. Emily Rosenfeld who plays the littlest orphan Molly is a miniature Mary Tyler Moore with a precocious knack for physical comedy, especially when she puts on Miss Hannigan’s bra and stuffs it full with scarves while singing “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile”.
Much of these nuanced portrayals owe thanks to Andy Blankenbeuhler’s choreography. You would never guess this is the same choreographer whose pop and locks are on display a few blocks away at Bring It On: The Musical. The breadth of his work is testament to dance as an element of storytelling.
What we love ultimately about Annie is that having wealth, while undeniably fabulous, pales next to having a family. The whole 5th Avenue penthouse/two-story crystal chandelier (which is impressive, by the way) is for our pleasure far more than it is for Annie’s. We believe that her greatest happiness is in having a loving parent. Though the opportunity for upward mobility in troubled times is something we too can all embrace. You too, Republicans.