Filichia Features: A New Look at Annie

Filichia Features: A New Look at Annie

When you think of it, one aspect of Annie has never made any sense.

At the end of the show, everyone is having a wonderful time, and not simply because it’s Christmas Day. Miss Hannigan, Rooster and Lily have been thwarted and captured; Annie and her new Daddy are together at last, together forever; not only are Annie’s ol’ friends on hand to celebrate the occasion, but President Roosevelt is also there to give his regards.

In the midst of this, the servants leave the stage but quickly return with a big box. What’s in it? Why, no less than Sandy, the terrier with whom Annie bonded in Act One, but from whom she was soon separated during the police raid on Hooverville.

Wait-wait-wait-wait-wait. Annie’s creators – director-lyricist Martin Charnin, bookwriter Thomas Meehan and composer Charles Strouse – never had Annie tell Daddy Warbucks about the dog. How does he know about it? And if Daddy couldn’t locate Annie’s parents – genuine human beings who must have left some sort of paper trail -- how could he have ever been able to track down a certain stray dog even if Annie had mentioned him?

I’m guessing that these are questions that also crossed the mind of director James Lapine. For in his current production of Annie at the Palace Theatre on Broadway, he sheds a little more light on how Sandy wound up at the Warbucks manse.

Midway through the first act, Lapine has added a moment where Grace Farrell, Warbucks secretary, happens to spy Sandy on the street while he’s being pursued by a dogcatcher. She immediately goes over to the man, slips him a little money and points to the now-offstage dog. While we don’t hear what she says to him, we can infer that she’s telling the dogcatcher to snag him for Annie.

All right, we didn’t hear Annie say anything to Grace about the dog, either. But still, this scenario is a little better, for it at least gives us some indication of how Sandy winds up with a ribbon around his neck on Christmas Day.

Whether or not this idea appeals to you, Lapine has added some other little touches that are worth considering for your next production of Annie.

Lapine has made Lilla Crawford a little angrier (but not excessively) than the Annies we’ve seen. That makes sense; the kid has every right to feel that she’s received a rotten deal from life. Thus, when Annie meets Sandy, Lapine has Crawford convey that she identifies with his homelessness. Later, after Daddy Warbucks gives her a new coat and they go into N.Y.C., she fears that someone is going to steal it right off her body – and fiercely protects it.

This is not to suggest that Annie is a mean little kid. During "N.Y.C.," Lapine shrewdly has her ask Warbucks for some money, and once he gives it to her, she in turn bestows it on a homeless Depression victim. We like that she remembers her roots.

So does Daddy Warbucks. Anthony Warlow appropriately has a touch of gravel in his speaking voice, befitting a man who admits to a hardscrabble childhood as a Hell’s Kitchen orphan. He identifies with Annie and respects her spirit. Those feelings soon turn to love, although Warlow deepens the character by seeming to second-guess himself after he dares to express any emotion.

Tough as Warbucks may be, however, he's touching after he promises Annie that "You Won't Be an Orphan for Long." How moving he is when we hear those marvelous lyrics about locating her parents that are inexplicably missing from the original cast album: "What a thing to occur; finding them, losing her."

But Warlow might be better advised to deliver a certain line the way that original Warbucks Reid Shelton did. (To be fair, I’ve never seen any other Warbucks do it a la Shelton.) The line involves Warbucks’ last plane trip, which he describes to his staff: "Took seven hours and made only two stops." Warlow, like all the other Warbucks I’ve witnessed, says the line with irritation, as if the trip had been an ordeal. Shelton instead said it with wonder, to let us see that in 1933, spending almost a third of a day in the air between two layovers was considered an amazingly speedy trip.

In previous productions I’ve seen, all the orphans have been deliriously happy for Annie’s success. Lapine apparently finds this too hard to believe. As a result, he has the oldest orphan not do much singing and dancing in "You're Never Fully Dressed without a Smile." This suggests that her happiness at younger Annie’s hitting the jackpot is understandably muted, for older kids learn to give up the dream that someone will ever adopt them.

License the rights to peform Annie.

It brings to mind Pauline Kael's famous review of The Sound of Music: “Wasn't there perhaps one little Von Trapp who didn't want to sing his head off, or who screamed that he wouldn't act out little glockenspiel routines for Papa's party guests, or who got nervous and threw up if he had to get on a stage?” Similarly, isn’t there one orphan in Annie who’s jealous?

There’s more grittiness in store: Ashley Blanchet’s Star-to-Be, who has that famous solo in “N.Y.C.,” may not be able to afford “The Y” tonight after all; Lapine has her belongings snatched out of her hands on her first day in town. Brynn O’Malley’s Grace Farrell is steeliest one I’ve ever seen; she has no illusions of ever being Warbucks' girlfriend and the thought never occurs to her (as it did to original Grace Sandy Faison).

Since Faison created Grace, the character has traditionally been played by a blonde; indeed, the plot hinges on it, for when the evil Rooster literally runs into her in Act One, he says, "Excuse me, Blondie" -- a line he'll repeat in Act Two, after he's become "Ralph Mudge," Annie’s would-be father. (His bumping into Grace one more time and again saying "Excuse me, Blondie" helps give him away to Grace.) Because Brynn O’Malley is a brunette, the line has become "Excuse me, Tootsie." Moral of the story: don't just audition blondes for Grace because of the line that cites a blonde; you do have a choice.

And while you’re casting, remember that Roosevelt, who’s only seen in a wheelchair, is nice role for an actor who has ambulatory problems. If you know wonderful hard-working actors who have thrilled in many a drama or comedy but can't sing three consecutive notes without going off-pitch, cast them as Roosevelt's cabinet members. Yes, they must join in on the reprise of "Tomorrow," but Lapine has shown that there’s some humor to be mined if these characters aren’t natively good singers – for we don’t think of cabinet members as inherently musical. Lapine gets some extra laughs by making them look at each other mid-song and adopt expressions that seem to say, "This is highly irregular.”

And yet, one moment is less gritty here than in the original production: back in 1977 (and beyond), radio star Bert Healy announced to his listening audience that a tap dancer would now entertain -- but there was none on hand; the “tapper” was simply the props man continually rapping two shoes on a table. The radio audience at home, of course, was none the wiser.

It’s an excellent joke, but here choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler – possibly because he had an expert tapper in Jeremy Davis – has Healy do his own dancing. So if your Bert Healy is able to tap, consider using him in this capacity.

Here’s another new idea, courtesy of Blankenbuehler: why not try to make a big, glitzy 11 o'clock number out of "A New Deal for Christmas" by pulling out every choreographic stop you can?

Also setting his imagination to work is set designer David Korins. Although he had to provide different rooms for the Warbucks mansion, he simply solves the problem by creating a stage-filling “book” on which the foyer, library, kitchen et al. are painted; we go to each new room by the simple turn of a “page.” So if you’ve feared that replicating a mansion in your upcoming Annie might be cost-prohibitive, here’s a solution.

Oh -- Katie Finneran’s Miss Hannigan? She’s most amusing in the different expression she adopts after she warns Grace "You don‘t want Annie. She's a drunk." Finneran gives a look of regret and sympathy at the poor orphan who’s a pre-teen lush.

In Charnin’s original production, when Dorothy Loudon’s Miss Hannigan stared down at little Molly and snarled, “Your days are numbered,” the tiny lass kept looking at her in wide-eyed innocence. Here, Lapine makes Molly take the ominous warning to heart. The girl walks away, shoulders slumped, seeming ashamed and defeated.

Miss Hannigan, you may also recall, avidly listens to the then-popular radio soap opera The Romance of Helen Trent. The theme of the program was that “romance can begin at 35.” Yes, and that goes for this 1977 Tony-winning musical, too: in this 35th anniversary production, fall in love with Annie all over again.

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