For ‘Annie’ actress on Broadway, the sun has come out

NEW YORK — When the feisty little girl with the curly red hair fills her lungs to belt out the tune about the sun coming out tomorrow, the tingle one experiences starts at the bottom of the spine and wends its way inexorably toward the tear ducts. How did she know, the audience wonders, that at this particular moment in time, these were the lyrics people in the Northeast most needed to hear?

Annie,” the 1977 musical based on the 1920s “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip, returns to Broadway as if shipped to the Palace Theatre by a morale-boosting arm of FEMA. Infused with zip and charm by its sensational Annie, Noo-Yawk-tawkin’ Lilla Crawford, the show, slickly staged by James Lapine, tells you that any city or nation keeping faith with the future will rise again, come hell or high water.

(Joan Marcus/Joan Marcus) - Lilla Crawford plays Annie in the production at the Palace Theater in New York.

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The water was still being pumped out of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and scores of households remained stunned and displaced as “Annie” marked its official opening Thursday night, a full week and a half after Hurricane Sandy swallowed up barrier beaches and shredded the Northeast coast. That the production features a cuddly dog sharing the name of the killer storm — here played by a terrier mix rescued from a shelter and christened, of all things, Sunny — heightens the belief that “Annie” has arrived as propitiously as any 12-layer slice of American resilience ever could.

Sometimes, events wholly out of the theater’s control muscle their way onto the stage and quite unexpectedly enrich our perspective. So it is with this handsome revival, infinitely superior to the previous Broadway incarnation, a woefully bedraggled 1997 staging with Nell Carter as orphanage monster Miss Hannigan that ran for only 239 performances. One suspects that this kid- and adult-pleasing version, enhanced by Anthony Warlow’s gruff and robustly sung Daddy Warbucks, will be ensconced at the Palace for far longer.

The gifted comic actress Katie Finneran, a Tony winner for her supporting performance in a 2010 revival of “Promises, Promises,” here slips into the frilly wardrobe of the noted child-despiser Miss Hannigan, a role originated legendarily on Broadway by Dorothy Loudon and portrayed in the lamer 1982 film version by Carol Burnett. With her sexy, neurotic energy, Finneran should be a great fit for a self-dramatizing villainess you never totally hate but have to love to watch go to pieces. Accelerating quickly into shrillness — even Miss Hannigan’s signature song, “Little Girls,” is pitched too high for her — Finneran doesn’t let the audience fully embrace her joyous malevolence. We never feel enlisted in her quest to rise from the ranks of the losers.

Thanks, though, to li’l Lilla and a superbly assembled cast of supporting orphans — Emily Rosenfeld, Georgi James, Taylor Richardson, Madi Rae DiPietro, Junah Jang and Tyrah Skye Odoms — the sentimental center of “Annie” holds, just fine. The musical’s songwriters, Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, and book writer, Thomas Meehan, front-load their show with numbers sure to beat back even the sternest resistance: Annie’s lilting ballad “Maybe”; the gleefully syncopated orphan anthem “It’s the Hard-Knock Life”; and, of course, the song that launched a thousand stage mothers, “Tomorrow.”

Coaxed by Lapine, who collaborated with Stephen Sondheim on “Into the Woods” and “Sunday in the Park With George,” among others, Crawford exudes the beguiling clarity of a kid unbowed by the hard-knock life. Her Annie is as egalitarian as we’d like to believe our country, at its best, might be. So lumps tend to rise in one’s throat as she mingles with the low as well as the mighty, whether in the tent camps of those made homeless by the Depression or in the Oval Office, where her optimism inspires FDR (Merwin Foard) to dream up the New Deal.

Matching Crawford vowel for lazy New York vowel, the Australian Warlow proves to be an ideal Warbucks, the warmth of the performance rising scene by scene. David Korins’s sets are both economical and inventive, especially the storybook rendering of the Warbucks manse. Although Andy Blankenbuehler’s dances are stingy with the tapping, Todd Ellison’s crisp music direction confers a robustness on Michael Starobin’s orchestrations.

Like much of this “Annie,” its Sandy upholds the show’s adorable standards. And its abundant bonhomie bolsters the conviction that Sunny should be coming out for many a tomorrow.

Annie

music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin, book by Thomas Meehan. Directed by James Lapine. Choreography, Andy Blankenbuehler; sets, David Korins; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Brian Ronan. With Brynn O’Malley, Clarke Thorell, J. Elaine Marcos. About 2½ hours. At Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, New York. Visit www.anniethemusical.com or call 877-250-2929.

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