James Lapine's "bigger is better" approach doesn't always suit this classic musical about the scrappy little orphan.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already succeeded in banning supersized soft drinks in theaters, but if he ever proposes a similar restriction to what's happening on the theatrical stage, I suspect he'll have to battle James Lapine to the death.
The veteran director has created such a surprisingly gargantuan take on the formerly modestly-sized musical Annie, now at the Palace, that even knowing the script practically by heart, I half expected to see a real elephant ride across the stage long before that lovable canine Sandy bounded on.
If you've always loved Annie, size won't matter; you'll still be humming those same irresistible Martin Charnin-Charles Strouse tunes on the way in and on the way out. If you've always found the show cloying, with its mouthy moppets and its feel-good "the sun will come out tomorrow" motto, you'll still want to sneak a BB gun into the theater. (Please don't).
And if you've never seen the show before (is that possible?), well, that's another story. You may adore it – or you may wonder why it seems too often to lack the kind of charm and heart you expected to find.
In part, it's because Lapine's "bigger is better" approach seems to have guided the performances of his two leading ladies, who constantly play to the Palace's second balcony. As that scruffy, scrappy orphan of the title, Lilla Crawford unquestionably has vocal power to spare, belting to the rafters with the ease and poise of a diva four times her age. But you never doubt for a minute this ragamuffin could survive for years out there on her own. She'd probably become the leader of an Occupy Hooverville movement if the cops didn't find her.
As her perpetual nemesis, Miss Hannigan, Tony Award winner Katie Finneran has plenty of moments where she is screamingly funny. (And plenty of moments where she's also screaming). A seasoned scene-stealer, she certainly makes a full-course meal, both vocally and physically, out of her semi-meaty Act I number, "Little Girls." But I wanted a bit more subtlety and variety in her constantly-drunk, man-hungry portrayal of orphanage head. She's not so much a good woman-gone-bad, but a bad woman-gone-worse.
Sadly – and it's the one glaring flaw in Thomas Meehan's superbly-crafted book --Finneran never gets to go womano a mano against the superb Australian actor Anthony Warlow, whose full-bodied, full-voiced turn as Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks anchors the production once he finally arrives onstage. His gruff, yet slightly tender bachelor billionaire is completely believable, yet the actor has enough musical comedy elan to light up songs like "NYC" and "I Don't Need Anything But You."
The only thing Warlow can't seem to do is find any romantic chemistry with the lovely Brynn O'Malley as his secretary Grace Farrell. She's so officious – and almost sexless -- that this is the first Annie where I was left wondering if she and Warbucks "live happily after."
Lapine's production is, in so many ways, the proverbial mixed bag. For example, he both underutilizes the talent of choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and gives set designer David Korins a multimillion dollar opportunity. This scenic wizard, who has made a memorable career of working brilliantly with small spaces and smaller budgets, scores big here, especially in his creation of the lavish Warbucks mansion. When Annie sings "I Think I'm Going to Like It Here" during her initial visit, you'll be tempted to make it a sing-along – even if you don't know the words.