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NEW YORK – Playing the decidedly unmaternal orphanage den mother Miss Hannigan in the Tony-nominated Broadway revival of Annie, Jane Lynch drops her voice to a bone-chilling whisper during her character’s signature lament, “Little Girls,” bemoaning, “Everywhere I turn I can see them.” That wickedly funny moment conjures vivid thoughts of Haley Joel Osment seeing dead people. But the parallels with Lynch’s misanthropic cheerleading coach on Glee, Sue Sylvester, also contribute to make this an inspired substitute casting choice in a 2012 production that otherwise shows signs of fatigue.
Lynch steps in for Katie Finneran, a gifted musical theater performer who seemed too young and soft, a somewhat imperfect fit for the boozing harridan played by Dorothy Loudon, Carol Burnett and Kathy Bates in previous stage, screen and TV versions of Annie. But Lynch claims the role as her own in her appealing Broadway debut, injecting signature traits of her TV persona — the haughty self-regard, the blistering sneer, the undisguised exasperation — as well as a wonderfully slouchy sense of physical comedy.
Her height alone makes Lynch a delight to watch in this role, particularly as she towers over Molly (Emily Rosenfeld), the most diminutive of the luckless orphans in her charge, hissing, “Your days are numbered.” Her Miss Hannigan makes a brave stab at keeping up appearances, with her 1930s rag-curled hairdo and her disheveled housecoats worn with the determined self-deception of a glamour girl who has somehow landed in the wrong place.
Lynch is neither the most brilliant singer nor dancer ever to grace a Broadway stage, but her comic timing is sharp and amusingly idiosyncratic. And she uses her gangly long limbs to ostrich-like effect, notably as she shimmies through “Easy Street” with her unscrupulous brother Rooster (Clarke Thorell) and his floozy, Lily St. Regis (J. Elaine Marcos).
Perhaps due to the rigors of Tony ceremony rehearsals this week, Lilla Crawford, who plays Annie in the revival, was out at the Wednesday press performance. Her understudy, Taylor Richardson, did an accomplished job on the vocals, but otherwise seemed a tad robotic, not quite locating the emotional core that Crawford brings to the comic-strip part.
Overall, a hint of slackness has crept into the show, especially when Lynch is not onstage to provide fresh zest. The contemporary associations of James Lapine’s production, with its Depression-era breadlines, shantytowns and “millions of Americans who are ragged, hungry and homeless,” still make this a ripe time to revisit the 1977 musical. But the shortcomings of Andy Blankenbuehler’s lackluster choreography and the underpopulated-looking production numbers are more nagging now that some of the initial polish has faded. This is especially apparent when the pace lags in Act II.
There are still some high points, among them Anthony Warlow as Oliver Warbucks, the capitalist whose heart is melted by his moppet houseguest, delivering a stirring, beautifully sung “Something Was Missing.” But on the whole, after just eight months on the boards, the production is short on the sparkle that a current-season entry should be generating big-time during Tony week. Or perhaps it was just an off night?
Lynch is scheduled to appear through July 14, and her arrival has prompted a bump in ticket sales. But barring another smart casting coup to follow Lynch’s exit, it’s Annie’s days that may be numbered.
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