Expanding the current time warp created by “A Chorus Line” and “Les Miserables,” the national tour of “Annie” has landed in New York after a year on the road. But instead of showing its age, the production — directed by lyricist and original Broadway helmer Martin Charnin — beams with opening-night energy and charm. It even boasts a bit of Gotham-only stunt casting that proves surprisingly inspired.
With its overture, feel-good politics and endless reprises of songs like “Tomorrow” and “Maybe,” the material is pleasantly old-fashioned.
It also shows impeccable craft as the story zips by without a single unnecessary scene. We learn just what we need to care about little orphan Annie (Marissa O’Donnell), who’s trapped in a Depression-era orphanage until her pluck gets her adopted by wealthy bachelor Daddy Warbucks (Conrad John Schuck).
By the time F.D.R. (Allan Baker) arrives to sing about unemployed Americans getting a “new deal for Christmas,” it almost seems plausible that a good attitude and a clever melody can turn this country around.
O’Donnell does commendable work in the lead, belting her solos in strong voice and avoiding schmaltz in tender moments with Schuck. Like the rest of the kiddie thesps, however, she trowels on precociousness in the orphanage scenes. The seven girls overact their various quirks — she’s the nervous one, she’s the bully — but it may be because they’re worried about hitting the back of Madison Square Garden’s enormous theater.
The one actor guaranteed to reach the last row is Kathie Lee Gifford, playing sadistic orphanage director Miss Hannigan. (In other cities, the role is filled by Alene Robertson.) With her hair piled in a chaotic mound and her body curved like a lower-case “r,” Gifford gives a winning comic perf as a woman who delights in being cruel. She’s particularly nimble with physical bits, blithely hurling herself against door frames and onto the floor as she despairs over Annie escaping the orphanage before she herself can.
There are a few scenes where Gifford almost stops the show with her “look at me” antics, but her adult co-stars know how to break in and keep the plot moving. And when it’s time to dance and sing, Gifford drops her shtick to become part of the ensemble.
Providing crucial ballast, Schuck’s turn as Warbucks is built on understatement. He’s particularly affecting in a scene where he pretends to be happy that Annie might leave him to live with her birth parents.
But that’s grownup stuff. Kids likely will be most enthralled by Lola, the dog who plays Annie’s sidekick Sandy. The pooch does some impressive work, particularly when she hops on three legs and hides in a gift box under Daddy Warbucks’ tree. Judging by aud reaction at the performance reviewed, Lola is the superstar, and the tuner behind her is a delightful bonus.