At long last, “Annie Warbucks” alights in Manhattan, a small miracle given the fact that this famously troubled show has been killed once, orphaned twice and has boasted three Annies since its debut in January 1990 as “Annie 2: Miss Hannigan’s Revenge,” a musical fondly remembered for its legendary badness.
“Annie Warbucks” is an infinitely better show than “Miss Hannigan’s Revenge.” It has charm (though not nearly as much as the original “Annie” in 1977), several good songs from Martin Charnin and Charles Strouse and — the real miracle in this production, which has been downsized from a $ 5.5 million Broadway promise to a $ 1 million Off Broadway reality — simply beautiful, elegant settings by Ming Cho Lee that unfold like origami.
At 2 1/2 hours, it still runs too long for the target family audience, especially in the first act, and no one would miss the 20 minutes it could easily lose. Conversely, Thomas Meehan’s book, though much improved, has the staccato sound of a piece that has been endlessly cut, patched and rewritten (which, of course, it has).
In Kathryn Zaremba, this sequel has a good, though only good, Annie. She’s cute and blessed with a sturdy, attractive voice, but she has to fake Annie’s charisma and she’s completely unformed as an actress. Such artlessness can be a virtue, especially in child actors; here, however, it leaves a noticeable hole in the proceedings.
Happily, that hole is amply filled by most of the adult cast, starting with Harve Presnell’s Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks.
It’s Christmas morning, 1933; Warbucks’ adoption of Annie seems complete, and a holiday celebration is under way. But the festivities are interrupted by New York City child welfare commissioner Harriet Doyle, a comic villainess easily the rival of Miss Hannigan and played with shlumpy, grumpy relish by Alene Robertson. She directs Daddy to find a wife within 60 days or it’s back to the orphanage for Annie.
The obvious choice is right under Warbucks’ nose, in the person of his young, attractive secretary Grace (Marguerite MacIntyre). To press the point, Annie and the service staff, headed by the fine butler Drake (a smooth Kip Niven), sing “That’s the Kind of Woman.”
Daddy, however, is convinced he’s too old for Grace, explaining why in the lovely “A Younger Man.” Eventually, he falls — or thinks he falls — for the more seasoned Sheila Kelly, and who wouldn’t? She’s played by Donna McKechnie in a gleeful comic turn and she’s a revelation, particularly in her mean, rousing duet with the commish.
Before the show wends its way to a completely predictable ending, Annie will have learned about love from a family of sharecroppers in Tennessee (all awfully played), helped FDR (Raymond Thorne) create the Tennessee Valley Authority, and brought her pals from the orphanage (a pitifully underpopulated group) aboard the Staten Island Ferry for a wedding party, where they and the grownups have a terrific dance number in “All Dolled Up.” And Grace will have delivered the musical’s sole standout number, the torchy “It Would Have Been Wonderful.”
This is a show that gives away its entire plot and nearly all its secrets in the song titles. Despite the years of development, Strouse and Charnin still haven’t come up with a number for Annie to equal “Tomorrow,” and the one that tries, “I Always Knew,” is derivative and illiterate (“Tomorrow can come true”).
Along with that anemic kids’ chorus, the limitations of the move to Off Broadway are most apparent in Keith Levinson’s thin orchestrations and the thin-sounding band he leads.
But Charnin and choreographer Peter Gennaro deploy their comparatively large company with considerable finesse, even if Presnell sometimes seems on the verge of bursting through the proscenium.
Theoni V. Aldredge’s costumes are characteristically in-period with a sense of humor, and Ken Billington’s lovely lighting adds greatly to the first-rate look of the settings.
The show still seems unfinished — among other quibbles, one could complain that there’s not enough Annie Warbucks in “Annie Warbucks”– but it’s a competent and frequently pleasant show. That should satisfy a lot of customers, who may give the expensively refurbished Variety Arts Theater the validation it needs.
The show will never make Charnin, Strouse and Meehan the millions they earned from “Annie,” but it will finally let them get on with their lives, for which we can all be grateful.