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Before its first commercial break, NBC’s Annie Live! offered: newcomer Celina Smith’s thoroughly winsome rendition of “Maybe”; a group of orphans krumping and cartwheeling their way through “It’s a Hard Knock Life”; the introduction of Taraji P. Henson’s slithering interpretation of Miss Hannigan as The Grinch Who Tried to Steal an Orphan’s Christmas; one very well-behaved dog; and Smith belting out the anthemic “Tomorrow.”
That’s all in 20 minutes, and if I’d stopped watching Annie Live! and called it a night, NBC would have had a minor triumph on its hands — a production in all ways better than the dismal and absurdly successful Sound of Music that started the live musical mania that Peter Pan Live nearly killed and that the COVID pandemic put on ice for a year (delays in mounting the long-developed Jennifer Lopez-centric Bye Bye Birdie added to the gap). Those 20 minutes probably wouldn’t have equaled the admirable high energy of Hairspray or the actual artistic ambition of The Wiz, but they would have accomplished exactly the goal that NBC had in selecting Annie in the first place six months ago.
Annie is a musical about finding optimism in the most desperate of circumstances, the story of a little girl with so much pluck that a decade in an orphanage and an economic depression labeled “great” for its vastness not its quality can’t stop her from sticking out her chin, grinning and looking ahead to better days tomorrow. Annie is the musical America needs now. Or at least it’s the musical that distilled its message in a way so clear that NBC was able to process and promote its simplistic optimism.
Sure, if you look deeper, the musical’s message is really that if you can just find a rich benefactor, you’ll never need to eat mush again. It’s a hollowness that’s even greater today, since anybody actually paying attention knows that the 2021 version of Daddy Warbucks would be less interested in adopting hordes of young girls — the less said here the better — than chartering his own excursions into space and picking Twitter fights with progressive politicians. Instead, Annie Live! was boiled down to the halcyon optimism of a world in which a white billionaire, a Black orphan and Franklin Roosevelt can come together and lift the country out of a morass. And who doesn’t want to believe that?
To paraphrase the late, great Stephen Sondheim, Annie isn’t good or bad, it’s just nice. It’s a warm cup of a cocoa-flavored beverage that lacks enough natural ingredients to call itself “chocolate.” But with a couple of good performances, one can ignore that Annie is crazily front-loaded and just keeps doing reprises of its three best songs to kill time in its second act; that Daddy Warbucks is a character with no arc at all; that Miss Hannigan, indisputably the best character in the show, vanishes for most of the second act; and that it’s presented as a happy musical in which the climactic scene is a creepy rich guy excitedly telling a small child that her parents are actually dead and not a pair of rubes with the last name “Mudge.”
These, of course, are problems with Annie as a musical and not necessarily problems with NBC’s Annie Live! They just also happen not to be problems that director Lear deBessonet had any power to mitigate, and problems that definitely don’t get better when you have NBC breaking for commercials every seven or eight minutes.
So what worked in this Annie? It starts, obviously, with Smith, who sang well — one could point to more than a few big notes that she cut off instead of holding, probably as much a product of nervousness as anything else — danced decently and acted wonderfully, bringing all of the sad hopefulness that makes Annie such a fundamentally winning character, without being as aggressively perky as some of our more familiar Annies.
Fortunately, if what you wanted was mugging child actors, the ensemble of orphans was happy to oblige and I don’t even mean that as an insult. “It’s a Hard Knock Life” comes way too early in the show to be such a show-stopper — and even if nothing in the next 150 minutes came close to matching its spirit, it was a joyful number, buoyed by Sergio Trujillo’s choreography and perhaps the only time in the whole program that live TV director Alex Rudzinski just put the camera in the right place and let us watch the staging.
I think Henson’s performance probably would have been better when seen from the mezzanine and Rudzinski did her no favors jamming the camera in her face at times. Still, the delicious pleasure Henson took in Miss Hannigan’s dirtier, crueler aspects was contagious and it’s the fault of the show and not this production that the character’s comeuppance is so lifeless. Tituss Burgess and Megan Hilty were a little more restrained than I like my Rooster and Lily St. Regis to be, but they arrive at a moment the show is lagging and they offer a pick-me-up. Whoever thought, though, that I’d be complaining about Burgess being too restrained?
As the terminally dull Daddy Warbucks, Harry Connick Jr. was much better vocally than a part frequently dedicated to talk-singing deserves. When you sit Connick down at a piano and let him croon, he’s wonderful, and during “Something Was Missing,” I temporarily stopped being distracted by a bulbous bald cap that looked like it was auditioning for a role in a reboot of Alien Nation. I wish Nicole Scherzinger had given Connick more to play off of, but I’ve never thought Grace was much of a character, with the exception of the first feature film, when Ann Reinking’s dancing covered for a lack of writing.
Without nearing the level of production design that lifted The Wiz (and even Peter Pan, not that it’s “cool” to praise anything about that dud), Annie Live! did some evocative stuff with the occasionally cavernous set, especially in the orphanage and Hooverville scenes. I also appreciated the lack of distracting stunt casting that has sometimes marred these NBC productions. It was “just” a solid ensemble, presumably plucking many performers off of Broadway as possible.
A reference to Broadway getting back on its feet got one of several large roars from an audience that was an easy touch for any big emotional beat and yet barely laughed at all at a quality Harpo Marx joke. The audience in the venue was happy to be there and the audience at home was probably happy to have live TV musicals back. And when everybody is happy to be happy, Annie is right in its element.
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