“Annie” returns to Broadway for the first time in 15 years in a handsome if somewhat checkered new production that’s nevertheless superior to the redheaded orphan’s previous two visits to Gotham. Credit director James Lapine and his design team for reviving what had grown to look tired in prior stagings of the 1977 hit. The biggest plus is Broadway newcomer Anthony Warlow’s strong take on Daddy Warbucks, but the casting is problematic in the other main roles. Overall results suggest a family crowdpleaser, at least until the potential competition when the little-girl-centric Brit hit “Matilda” comes to town in the spring.
Warlow, an Aussie best known for his performances in Down Under productions of “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” ably combines comedy and warmth as he falls under the title moppet’s spell. He starts off with a rousing rendition of “N.Y.C.” and is especially touching in his waltz solo, “Something Was Missing.”
The main gamble is filling the role of villainous orphanage proprietrix Miss Hannigan with Katie Finneran, the inveterate scene-stealer who won Tonys in revivals of “Promises, Promises” and “Noises Off.” She displays similar comedic chops here, but her relatively young appearance and decidedly good looks work against her. Miss Hannigan should be driven by end-of-the-line, back-up-against-the-wall desperation; Finneran looks and acts like a hard-working veteran of a skid-row cathouse, all the while comporting herself as though auditioning for Minsky’s.
Lilla Crawford, this year’s Annie, is more than adequate but doesn’t provide the energetic spirit that many of her predecessors did. She sings loudly, certainly, and can hold the stage. What’s missing is a direct rapport with the audience; if one were to pick two of the orphans onstage to invite to Thanksgiving dinner, this Annie likely wouldn’t make the cut. Crawford is not helped by the strong New Yawk accent she’s saddled with, sometimes making her unintelligible.
The other little girls — led by Emily Rosenfeld as the scene-stealing Molly — perform admirably, building their rendition of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” into one of the highlights. Strong support is also offered by Brynn O’Malley as Warbuck’s loyal secretary (and Annie’s ally), Grace Farrell; Joel Hatch offering a friendly and humorous presence as the butler Drake; and Ashley Blanchet as the Star to Be, belting her big solo in “N.Y.C.” to the rafters.
Lapine does a good job of bringing out the comedy in Tom Meehan’s script, but he is not helped by his choreographer. Andy Blankenbuehler has an artistic approach — his hobo dancers are given individual suffering poses, in silhouette — but “Annie” cries out for musical-comedy hoofing. Charles Strouse’s music, with Todd Ellison conducting new orchestrations by Michael Starobin, sounds fine here. The design team merits special notice, with sparklingly imaginative scenery by David Korins effectively lit by Donald Holder.
Set among the Hoovervilles of the Depression in 1933, “Annie” has sudden relevance in a metropolis recovering from a disastrously devastating storm, with present-day residents roaming the streets looking for food, fuel and shelter. The only difference is that at the Palace, Sandy (Annie’s dog, as played by canine actor Sunny) gets cheers.