Latest edition of the classic musical about the plucky Depression-era orphan and her colorful cohorts turns out to be a tuneful surprise that rises entertainingly above any hint of remake-itis. Straightforward and sufficiently warm without being sappy, this “Annie” is easily the most watchable adaptation in memory, one lent a fresh style by Storyline Ent. partners Craig Zadan and Neil Meron and fellow exec producer Chris Montan. It also doesn’t hurt to have an Oscar winner like Kathy Bates playing your leading villain, even if she (perhaps inevitably) sails occasionally over the top.
The producers — along with scribe Irene Mecchi and helmer/choreographer Rob Marshall — are due particular kudos for steering clear of the cloying cutesy banter and presentation that too often mars these Broadway-bred interludes. All involved are able to overcome the genre’s limitations to make the story feel like an actual story rather than a contrived piece of sing-song mush. Pretty impressive stuff. So is the spiffy perf of 12-year-old Alicia Morton, who as Annie manages to steal our hearts with well-modulated ease.
“Annie” indeed boasts a talented cast well worth cheering: Bates, Tony Award winners Alan Cumming (as the scheming Rooster Hannigan) and Kristin Chenoweth (as Rooster’s clueless gal pal Lily St. Regis); three-time Tony winner Audra McDonald (as Grace Farrell); and four-time Tony nominee Victor Garber — so effective in his minor role in “Titanic” — as everyone’s favorite billionaire, Daddy Warbucks. With this level of Broadway talent on board, it’s hardly shocking that the cast gives this “Annie” a stage-y ambiance in the best sense.
“Wonderful World of Disney” production finds Morton, fresh from a three-year stint in “Les Miserables” on Broadway, portraying the legendary streetwise ragamuffin whose indomitable spirit brings a little holiday joy to Depression-ravaged Gotham in December 1933. Dumped on the doorstep of the NYC Municipal Orphanage as an infant, Annie is parentless but not hopeless or dreamless. She still believes her mom and dad will return for her, leaving Annie open to the ridicule of her fellow orphans.
Complicating Annie’s sunny view of the world is the dastardly Miss Hannigan (Bates, playing the role with a deft, if subtle, sympathetic edge). She has been Annie’s surrogate mom for 11 years now and runs her orphanage like a military academy. But Annie will soon become the unlikely toast of New York, because that’s just the way fate is.
Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin breathe energetic new life into songs like “Hard Knock Life,” “Tomorrow,” “Maybe” and “Little Girls” (given a brassy comic edge by Bates), while Marshall guides the numbers with an understated dexterity. And it’s a treat to see Andrea McArdle kick up her heels on a lavish rendition of “NYC” a full 20 years after she made her splashy debut as the rambunctious redhead on Broadway.
Because this “Annie” is presented more like a spirited fairy tale and less like a cartoon, it winds up being both more poignant and funny over the course of its sharply-played two hours. Indeed, this is about as quality-driven as sweeps ever gets. Tech credits are superb.