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'Annie' brings sun to storm-ravaged NYC

8:38 AM, Nov 9, 2012   |    comments
Annie and her orphan friends are once again charming the crowds on Broadway.(Photo: ©2012 Joan Marcus )
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NEW YORK -- Super-storm Sandy, make way for super-pooch Sandy, and his indomitable human companion.

A bright sun has come out over a city ravaged by one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory (not to mention one of the most bitter presidential campaign seasons). Neither wind nor rain nor cynicism of any stripe stands a chance against the thoroughly charming new production of Annie (* * * 1/2) that opened Thursday at Broadway's Palace Theatre.

The feel-good musical that first conquered NYC 35 years ago has always posed a challenge to directors, and audiences, wary of sentimentality; even in able hands, it can produce sugar shock, as anyone who has sat through John Huston's 1982 film adaptation could attest.

But in helming this new revival, James Lapine -- the frequent Stephen Sondheim collaborator whose many musical-theater credits also include such acclaimed works as Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee -- manages to present the story of a Depression-era orphan girl who wins the heart of a crusty financial titan as a portrait in pluck, in which neither characters nor viewers are condescended to.

Casting is, of course, key. In Lilla Crawford, the alabaster-skinned 11-year-old who plays the title role, Lapine has a heroine who acts and sings with a sweetly scrappy vitality that makes her entirely convincing as an underprivileged urchin. Her scenes with the aforementioned Oliver Warbucks -- played, by a superb Anthony Warlow, with a perfect mix of no-nonsense vigor and slightly awkward tenderness -- are refreshingly free of mugging.

So is Crawford's interaction with Sunny, the sad-eyed rescue dog who pops up as Sandy. At a recent preview, the little leading lady was belting out Annie's signature tune, Tomorrow, when Sunny, adorably, seemed to become distracted by something she saw off stage left. Crawford simply reached out to her canine castmate, as if to re-assure her, and finished the tune without a hitch.

The young girls cast as Annie's fellow sufferers back at the orphanage are similarly authentic. Their production numbers, choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, are spry and confident, but just rough enough around the edges not to evoke stage kids. As Miss Hannigan, the foul-tempered lush who presides over them, critics' darling Katie Finneran hams it up more, but also sustains an acerbic wit and a very human sense of disappointment and frustration.

The biggest revelation of this Annie, though, is how well the material has held up. Even if your ears chafed at the refrain from Tomorrow by the end of the '70s, Charles Strouse's score is better than you may recall, with buoyant melodies that are well-served by Martin Charnin's playful, heartfelt lyrics. When Warlow's robust-voiced Warbucks, wishing to adopt Annie, sings Something Was Missing, a wonder-struck declaration of paternal love, it's impossible not to be moved.

"Dreams do come true," Warlow croons -- and for Annie's duration, at least, you will believe him.

USA Today

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